Life lessons from New York Times bestselling author and Today show personality Al Roker and his wife, globetrotting ABC news journalist Deborah Roberts.
Al Roker and Deborah Roberts have sixteen Emmy Awards between them. They have covered everything from the Olympics and the Gulf War to natural disasters and the AIDS crisis in Africa. Now these two married journalists and parents have collaborated on the most personal and important “story” of their lives.
Been There, Done That is a funny, heartfelt, and empowering collection of life lessons, hard-won wisdom, and instructive family anecdotes from Al and Deborah’s lives, from their parents and grandparents, and from dear friends, famous and not. Here, Al and Deborah candidly share childhood obstacles like obesity and growing up in the segregated south; the challenges and blessings that come from raising very different kids; hard-won truths about marriage and career; the illuminating “little things” that adults can learn from children; and the genuine wisdom that the elderly can share with a younger generation.
These are real-life stories told from every perspective—from parent, spouse, daughter, son, and friend, stories that every reader can relate to, appreciate, and share.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Al Roker is seen by over thirty million daily TV viewers and is the recipient of thirteen Emmy Awards, ten of which he won for his work on NBC’s Today show. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Never Goin’ Back and Don’t Make Me Stop This Car!: Adventures in Fatherhood. An accomplished cook, Roker also has two bestselling cookbooks to his credit.
Deborah Roberts is a multiple award-winning ABC News journalist and 20/20 correspondent and former talk show host who has traveled the country and the world for her eye-opening reports on 20/20 and World News Tonight. She has also served as an anchor on World News Tonight Weekend and Good Morning America.
Read an Excerpt
By most measures, we are just your average American family. Yes, we may be in the public eye, but we share a lot of the same struggles, challenges and dilemmas other families face every single day, especially when it comes to raising our children.
We’re not perfect.
Far from it.
We’re not even striving for perfection . . . Well, maybe Deborah is. (Al, I admit it!) But still, we know we’re fallible, and that’s what keeps life interesting. What fun would perfection be anyway?
Although Al has written a number of books, collaborating was a new challenge. As we kept sharing our ideas, our goals and our memories—some funny . . . some of them serious—we realized that what we most wanted to write about were the values and lessons we hope to convey to our children. Passing on our values is one of the most important responsibilities of parenthood, and sometimes the lessons we’ve learned the hard way can spare our kids an ounce or two of struggle. Many of these lessons came from our own parents, while others came from friends, colleagues or people we’ve been privileged to meet all around the world. All have gifted us, in words or by example, with tremendous insight and wisdom. Some of those lessons were small and easily absorbed; others were deeply painful, but valuable and necessary. These are the things we want to teach our children and, we agreed, to share. We hope these stories will help inspire, entertain and connect with you in the process.
We are truly excited to take this project on together because outside of our family, which we’re extremely proud of, we haven’t had the chance to collaborate on many other projects. Someone once said to us, “The couple who works together stays together!” Ever wonder if the person who said that actually worked with their partner? We’re here to tell you, if you can survive writing a book that’s personal, revealing, open, honest and full of intimate details about your life, then you can survive anything! (We did it! In fact, the experience brought us closer.)
We come from very different backgrounds, which has given us a broad perspective on all the things we have faced as individuals, as a couple, as parents, as journalists and, most of all, as a family.
One thing we do have in common is being raised in a large family, with Deborah being the seventh of nine children and Al being the oldest of six. When we think back to our childhoods, the happiest and most vivid memories that bring us the greatest joy are those family moments that shaped us into the people we’ve become today. Deborah’s life was shaped by her small hometown in Georgia and Al’s by his close-knit neighborhood in Queens, New York. Deborah’s conservative Southern values and Al’s urban savvy have combined to make a well-balanced, albeit sometimes feisty and spirited, home environment, one that never gets boring or old! (Well, not unless it’s the argument about who’s driving.)
Despite our differences, we’ve both carried our childhood lessons into our roles as partners and parents, and we think we’ve been mostly successful in creating a balance that has helped blend our family into one filled with unity, love and togetherness. Above all, we share an understanding that family trumps everything. You may bicker, disagree, drift and come back together again, but at the end of the day, when the chips are down, family is who you can count on and who truly matters most in your life.
Other than the Bible, there’s truly no life handbook for modern times. If your pets start lining up two by two, check your homeowners’ insurance for flood coverage! Otherwise—nope, there is no user’s manual to confirm we are doing this thing called “life” right. Believe us, we’ve searched high and low for one. It doesn’t exist. So instead we hope, we pray, we discuss our choices with friends and loved ones, we look for signs, we ask professionals, we probe, we research and still we hold our breath that we are making the right decisions every day.
And life is what this book is all about. Experiences—funny, smart, sad, real, challenging, hard-to-talk-about, got-to-do-it-anyway experiences and what we learn from each of them.
We haven’t seen it all . . . yet . . . but Lord knows we’ve seen a lot. You might say we’ve really been there, done that.
Every day we strive to take the wisdom that our parents passed on to us and integrate their knowledge and experience with what we’ve learned in our own lives. As a result, we’ve been able to share their legacy with our children, instilling their values and ours, as we face the daily challenges of being mom and dad, husband and wife, and chief cooks and bottle washers.
So as a way to pay homage to our families, our heritage, our history and our children’s future, we wanted to share some of our favorite nuggets of wisdom we’ve gathered along the way. We’re not preachin’; we’re not teachin’. We’re just sharing what’s worked for us. Maybe it’ll work for you. If nothing else, we’ll share a few laughs and a couple of tears and try to make life a little better. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed sharing them.
—Al and Deborah
Never Give Up on Your Dreams
Growing Up in the Segregated South
When I was growing up in Perry, Georgia, in the late 1960s, our black-and-white television was always set to CBS. Channel 13 was the only station we could get with our flimsy rooftop antenna, so soaps like Search for Tomorrow and Dark Shadows were a part of the Roberts family’s daily routine. So was Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News.
Who would have guessed then that network news reporting would be my destiny some twenty years later? As a young black girl in the still-segregated Deep South, I could only daydream of someday living in a big city such as New York, reporting on important news stories like Walter Cronkite and his correspondents.
I remember being riveted by Lem Tucker, one of the few black national reporters at the time. His bravery while reporting in the thick of the brutal civil rights struggle stirred something inside my small chest. It seemed like the only black men and women you could see on TV at the time were the ones being brutalized in the fight for equal rights. I still recall seeing blacks sprayed by water hoses or being attacked by police dogs in Mississippi—just a few hundred miles away from my little town. Although I was young, I inherently understood there was something terribly wrong with what I was seeing almost daily.
As my brother Ben and my younger sisters, Belinda and Bonita, and I ran into the house, thirsty and hot from a day of play in the broiling Georgia heat, my parents were often watching the news and would shush us. So we’d stand silently around our pedestal television set, witnessing a changing world. Usually no one said a word. But one day my mother said in a soft voice, “People are getting tired.” She and Daddy exchanged a look of concern unlike any I had seen from them before. Then they quickly changed the subject so they wouldn’t scare their bewildered children. But we all felt the tension, especially when we went shopping downtown. I felt the glares and the uneasiness of the white customers, and it didn’t escape me that they always got preferential treatment from the store clerks. I couldn’t explain or express how it made me feel, but I knew I didn’t like it.
Today, as we make our lives in the diversity of New York City, my husband finds it hard to believe that I can vividly recall a time when the line between black and white was so clearly marked. To me it isn’t “history,” but my own lived experience. It seems like just yesterday that when I was sick my mom walked me around to the back door of Dr. Hendrick’s office to sit on the wooden benches in the colored waiting room. My school, the Houston County Training School, was segregated until I was in the fourth grade—fifteen years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court. Our books were used and tattered and our classrooms in need of fresh paint. I had no idea what it was like to sit beside a white child in school, let alone to play together on a playground. We saw white people in the grocery store or at the post office and that was it. I desperately wanted to take dance lessons, but the local dance school only accepted white girls. Somehow, though, my mother managed to shield me from the sting of segregation, turning my attention away from what I couldn’t have and toward what was possible by placing my focus on school, the local black chapter of the Girl Scouts or our church choir—all pursuits to catapult me forward toward my dreams and the belief that I could achieve anything.
In our little neighborhood of Old Field, with its roads made of red Georgia clay, parents didn’t talk much to their kids about the indignity of segregation or the pain of the Jim Crow laws. Like so many other black adults, who mostly worked factory jobs and struggled to get by, my parents learned to keep on keeping on, quietly praying for a better day. Mom and Dad both worked in a textile factory and then, for a time, Daddy worked in a cement factory while Mom cleaned houses. They seethed silently and yet somehow managed to see the light shining through the cracks of that dark system. Both held on to the dream that their children would someday have a better life than they had. My parents taught us to be mindful and careful while also being ready to stand up for ourselves, but like others in the community, they were reluctant to push back against an oppressive system they’d known all their lives. But as we watched Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Selma, Alabama, on the evening news, I remember Mama and Daddy cheering, calling him a hero. My parents didn’t speak often about resistance, but I saw in their eyes that they were ready for change and, most of all, opportunity.
Life was challenging for us—for all black people back then. It took many years of hard work in factories, but Daddy was finally able to scrape together enough money to start his own business, a carpet-installation service, with my cousins Sonny and Little Buddy. Daddy wasn’t a very good businessman. He never got the hang of using an appointment book. He wrote down appointments on little slips of paper that would somehow go missing and then he’d get angry phone calls from customers who expected him to be at their home . . . yesterday. But Daddy built a great reputation and was well respected, installing carpet in homes, both black and white, all over the region. Even though the company never did get well organized, they did great work and clients raved about my dad’s work ethic and installation skills. Somehow, like any small-business owner, he managed to make it all work, getting up early day in and day out, eking out a living, putting food on the table for his family and keeping a roof over our heads.
My mom was very traditional in her role as a wife and mother, and sometimes it makes me angry that she never had a chance to realize her full potential. Like many of her friends, she never finished high school. She had to quit and get a job to help out her family. On some level I think she felt intimidated and insecure, as if she didn’t know much about the world—but she did. While she may not have had a great deal of formal education, my mom had what I think of as street smarts. She inherently understood things about life and the real world that can’t be taught in a classroom. She took great pride in her civic responsibilities, especially when it came to voting, and she wasn’t afraid to join a local civil rights march. At the time, I didn’t know what the march was all about, but I understood that my parents wanted to help make a change in Georgia, to give their family greater opportunities than they’d had. In their quiet way, Mom and Daddy were breaking down barriers. I watched with pride and did my best to understand the significance of their resilience and contribution. And, looking back, I now realize that these two people, who were denied higher education, taught me the most wonderful and powerful lessons that would sustain me to this day—lessons that I take with me everywhere I go. Whether I am interviewing the first lady or a young mother suffering with AIDS in Lesotho, on assignment in Bangladesh or navigating office politics, I draw on the example set by a strong mother who, despite her insecurities, had a strong belief in a woman’s power and sheer determination.
My mom was something of a quiet feminist. I still remember the day in 1969 when she emerged from her bedroom wearing pants. While this may not sound notable today, in the 1960s, Southern women were expected to be ladies. And ladies wore dresses. Mom never left the house in anything but a colorful shift or a fitted A-line dress, always with panty hose. But Mom had a strong sense of herself and decided she wanted to wear what stylish women in the magazines and on TV were wearing. So she made herself a pair of straight-leg red pants and rocked them. Daddy came home and said, “What are you doing?” Mom answered that she was making dinner and it would be ready shortly. Wow. I was impressed. Mom, usually so passive and quiet, was now shaking up the status quo. My dad wasn’t crazy about the look. Even so, Mom believed a woman should set her own agenda.
While she never had the luxury to dream of a career of her own, Mom always wanted more for her children. Homework and reading were serious business in my household. Mom demanded that we stay busy, if not doing homework, then joining the library reading program or at the least playing outdoors until sundown. She believed that “idleness was the devil’s workshop.” Mom cracked the whip, encouraging her children, especially her daughters, to find a dream and go for it. (This must be where I get it from!)
My mom clearly wanted her girls to have the opportunities in life she never got herself. As teenagers we were expected to hold a job and make some money. I worked at McDonald’s for two years and took great pride in my polyester suit and matching baseball cap. Never having had a career of her own, Mom cautioned us girls that we should never rely on a man to take care of us. We needed to be self-sufficient and make our own money, she would say. She didn’t want our success to be determined by who we married. She wanted it to be about achieving for ourselves.
My older sister Bennie was the first black cheerleader at Perry High School. Pretty and charismatic, she exuded confidence and excitement in nearly everything she did. She loved fashion, and even as a high schooler, she strutted around in the latest bell-bottoms and crop tops, which she sewed herself. I fondly remember how she’d regale us at dinner with stories about her adventures, like a mock trial her social studies class had presented. Bennie was so inspiring to me. Watching her, I felt that life was full of hope and opportunities. By high school, I was following in her footsteps. I excelled in academics, made the cheerleading squad, joined the Beta Club and the Civics Club and was voted a football sweetheart. I was beginning to dream of big things.
Despite the many negative images and stereotypes I grew up seeing in the media, thanks to the love and support of my family and a healthy dose of self-confidence I developed along the way, I believed I could do more, be more and become anything I wanted to be. So when it came time for college, I wanted to step away from the pack. Bennie had ventured to Miami, Florida, for fashion college, but my sister Annette had graduated from Fort Valley State, a small, historically black college just fifteen miles from home, and Tina, four years older than me, had gone to Valdosta State, a small school just south of Perry. Many of my close friends were applying to local colleges too. Believe me, just making it to college was a huge achievement, and these women were all my role models. But I wanted to make a serious break away from home. I was accepted to the University of Georgia—the “Princeton of the South”—some two hundred miles northwest of Perry. With its renowned journalism school, strong academic program and nationally known Georgia Bulldogs football team, it was a gigantic step for me and turned out to be the perfect choice. It was the place where I would discover my true passion and find the courage to take flight. With my mom’s encouraging words never far from my thoughts, it was where I learned how to stand on my own two feet.
My memories of segregation are often top of mind when I am invited to speak at a women’s conference or to a group of aspiring journalists, because in many ways they truly shaped so much of who I became. I usually begin my talks with a line that sums up my life.
“I am an unlikely success story.”
Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to travel all over the country and around the world, and I’ve discovered that no matter where we live or what our economic station in life, most of us have the same goals: to lead happy, confident lives and to reach our full potential without bias and barriers.
Though we grew up with few advantages, my family life set me on a course of confidence and determination. That burning desire for opportunity, instilled by my parents, is probably the most common subject women want to talk about everywhere I go. Whether I’m on assignment in Africa or speaking to a YWCA group in Ohio, women are thirsty for examples of how they can overcome obstacles or grab that brass ring. When I was a junior in college I interned at a small station, WMAZ – TV in Macon, Georgia. Being new to the business, I made multiple mistakes while I was there! For example, while helping a reporter shoot video for her story, I accidently pressed the stop button when I thought I was rolling tape and never recorded her interview. Naturally, she was furious. I thought I’d be let go immediately, but I wasn’t. I was reassigned, given simple typing assignments—not where I wanted to be.
After I had a few tearful conversations with my mom, she wisely counseled me that life is about learning to take the hard knocks. She’d endured her share in the segregated South, and I’d have to learn to take mine if I wanted to make it in the real world. She said, “When you get knocked down, get up and push back,” and that it would make me stronger. As usual, Mom was right. I worked harder, earned another internship, and landed my first job in TV just a month after graduation.
Of course, now that I’m a mother myself, the notion of resilience is especially important to me. It is my never-ending mission to make sure my children have the opportunities to realize their goals in life and to help them change the world if they so choose. But opportunities alone are not enough. I also want to instill in our children the confidence and determination to reach out and grab those opportunities when they come along—or to create them through sheer will if necessary!
My Most Memorable Presidential Inauguration
In my thirty-seven years at NBC and the Today show, I have covered many historical events, from the eruption of the Iceland volcano to Superstorm Sandy. I have proudly attended six presidential inaugurations, but nothing could have prepared me for the day I witnessed a moment in American history I never believed I would live to see: the swearing in of the first black man as President of the United States.
When I drove to my location for the parade, I passed the Lincoln Memorial as I had done so many times in my life, and at first glance I couldn’t figure out what I was looking at. I could see the National Mall all right, but the size of the crowd took me by surprise; it didn’t look like any inauguration I’d attended in the past. I felt stunned that so many had gathered. But of course they were all there, as they had come years before to hear Martin Luther King Jr., to witness a seminal moment in history. I thought about my mom and how much she would have loved to see what I was seeing. After Obama’s first debate against Hillary Clinton, I vividly recall her saying with a conviction I’d rarely heard before, “That man is going to be president.” And she was right. Sadly, Mom didn’t live to see the fruition of her dream, but I was there in her place and in her honor.
After the swearing in, I took up my place along Pennsylvania Avenue, ready to broadcast the parade as I had done so many times before, beaming with great pride and joy to be both a black man and a proud American.
Traditionally, the president and first lady get out of their car and walk the last quarter mile or so along the parade route. I am usually perched directly across from the White House, reporting for the Today show. I was so excited at the sight of our new president and his wife as they made their way toward my position. I felt like a starstruck kid as they got closer.
“Mr. President!” I yelled as loudly as I could over the crowd.
I saw Mrs. Obama point me out to our new president.
I knew this was my chance to connect, so I asked him the only question I could think of:
“How does it feel?”
“It feels GREAT!” he responded, as he kept walking without losing his stride.
So I like to tell people that technically I got the very first interview with the new president.
And I suppose I did.
It was certainly a moment I’ve never forgotten.
For a brief time that day, our country was united in hope, with the promise of a new beginning.
“Yes We Can” had become a message and a belief that gave Americans a newfound confidence and optimism when we needed it.
As I watched the president make his way to the White House that cold January afternoon, I looked around at everybody who had come to witness this event and to suspend the division of parties to give our new president his due respect. It had been a long time since that had happened. He had told us that we were not red states and blue states, but united states, and so it seemed at that moment.
I remember watching the election returns with Nicky and Leila the night President Obama was first elected. Deborah was covering the returns for ABC in Harlem as I tried my very best to explain the importance of this win, especially to Leila, who was old enough to understand the electoral process. It was almost surreal. In fact, as we sat watching the returns, there were even a few moments when I privately wondered, “Is this really happening?” I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was going to pull the rug out from under my feet at the last moment. Surely someone would find a loophole—a hanging chad, so to speak.
But they didn’t.
One by one, each network called the race.
Barack Obama would become the forty-fourth president of the United States.
Oddly, I wasn’t emotional at first.
I didn’t cry that night, or the next day during our extended Today show broadcast. I can’t say the full impact of the election hit me until the inaugural ceremony. When I saw more than a million people show up to support our country’s first black president, I was truly gobsmacked.
The realization sank in that, despite all the imperfections of our nation, we indeed live in a country where you can be whoever and whatever you dream of.
YES WE CAN.
It doesn’t mean you will achieve everything you set out to accomplish, but the potential is there, and if ever my children have doubts about that, I will remind them of watching President Obama being sworn in.
In many ways, Obama followed a traditional path to success. He attended an Ivy League college and an Ivy League law school. He was a senator whose renown spread through a bestselling book and a remarkable speech at the Democratic National Convention. But in so many other ways his path was unusual, beginning with the fact that he was half African American—and not just African American but African American! He grew up not in Texas or Illinois or another battleground state, but in Hawaii and abroad. He did not look like most people’s picture of a U.S. president.
As a typical baby boomer, I was raised to believe that success depended on a traditional path, for example, going to college immediately after graduating high school—certainly that’s what I thought my older daughter, Courtney, ought to do after she graduated. I had watched her struggle in school for years, yet despite her challenges I pleaded with her to do the right—the expected—thing. Instead, she kept on pushing for what she believed in, taking responsibility for her life and achieving her dream of becoming a chef.
To me, she not only personifies resilience but the courage it takes to insist on what is important to her and do what she wants to do. That independence and fierce determination couldn’t make me any prouder as a parent. To watch her grow and become her own person has inspired me in ways she may never know.
We all have our own path to walk in life.
We all have the ability to become difference makers.
Not everyone is destined to make history, and that’s okay. As long as you strive to make history in your own life, you are a difference maker. I tell my kids that each morning brings a clean slate; every day they have the opportunity to make choices, to start all over, so they must choose wisely; those decisions will determine the outcome of their day.
Four years after President Obama was first elected, I found myself on the parade route once again. Unfortunately, there were many people who didn’t like the outcome of the election, and people who were filled with doubt and fear about the future of our country. Hurricane Sandy had pummeled the East Coast two months earlier, and many cities were still dealing with the aftermath. The mood just wasn’t as joyous as the first time around. I had a slight feeling of melancholy as I watched the inaugural speeches, especially because it happened to be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Although I knew there would be four more years of a black president, the feeling of overwhelming unity and goodwill was no longer there.
But even with all that, it was still a beautiful and exciting celebration of democracy. As I took my usual position on the parade route, my colleague Brian Williams tossed the shot to me and said, “Al Roker, the pressure is on. Can you get the president to acknowledge you again? Since you got the first interview with him after his first swearing in, let’s see if you can do it one more time!”
Never one to back down from a challenge, the moment I spotted President and Mrs. Obama, I began shouting, “Mr. President!” as loudly as I could.
Once again, Mrs. Obama pointed me out to the president.
“Al, the weather’s great!” he called to me.
“There you have it!” Brian Williams said.
But that wasn’t the end.
“Wait a minute. Vice President Biden has gotten out of his car. Al Roker with a double down. Can you get the vice president?” Brian Williams had challenged me again!
“Mr. Vice President. Come over! Come on over!” I beckoned to him vigorously, but he said he couldn’t.
“The Secret Service will kill me if I do.” Yet he ran over and shook my hand anyway.
“I’m done!” I said as I dropped my mike and walked away.
My producers thought I was being funny, but the truth is that I was suddenly overcome with emotion.
I was a black kid from Queens. I had just been acknowledged by the first black president of the United States and the vice president had come over to shake my hand. All I could think about was what my parents would have said if they had lived to see this day. It was an overwhelming and special highlight of my career—one I will never forget. My only regret was not having my family next to me to share the moment of triumph and celebration—not just mine, but the collective achievement of our country. Of we, the people.
Women of Influence
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been in search of people and moments of inspiration that make me a stronger woman, mother and wife. They’re all around us—if you simply take the time to look and listen. Many people find tremendous hope and inspiration in self-help books, but I’ve discovered there are valuable lessons in everyday experiences and encounters. My greatest life-changing lessons often take place on the job or during some other public event. I remember the death-row inmate I once interviewed. He was sincerely remorseful for the crime he committed and was living a remarkably philosophical life behind bars, grateful for each moment. Then there was the landscape worker I met who had vowed to devote her life to being an earthly angel, raising money to fund lifesaving and anonymous loans to people on the verge of disaster. At these moments, I walk away from the cameras humbled and changed, determined to live my life just a little better and with greater purpose.
Eight years ago I had the great pleasure to sit down with Michelle Obama just before the election that would send her family to the White House and change history. I had met her at a luncheon for Ebony magazine and was captivated by her warmth and lack of pretense. She was cordial and relaxed, casually blending into the sea of women, but her charisma was unmistakable. I was immediately intrigued by this brown-skinned woman who was making headlines in the black community for her competence and authenticity as she gradually stirred interest nationwide. I made my way toward her through the crowd, reached out my hand and introduced myself. I asked if we could possibly schedule a TV interview sometime to tell her story. With a gracious smile, she replied that she liked my work and asked me to give my contact info to Katie Lelyveld McCormick, her cheerful assistant.
I immediately felt a connection with Mrs. Obama. We both had made our way from humble roots. She came from the South Side of Chicago and I was from small-town Georgia. Though I grew up in a large family and she had only a brother, we were both guided by examples of hardworking, strong parents who struggled to provide for their families. Like me, Mrs. Obama knew what it was like to live in a home where money was tight. Yet Michelle Obama had excelled, graduating from Princeton and finding success in corporate America, and now with her husband making a legitimate move to change the course of political history, she was poised to make history too.
After months of negotiating logistics with Katie, I finally found myself sitting in a high-rise hotel room in downtown Chicago with a producer and a camera crew, awaiting Mrs. Obama’s arrival. It was an exciting moment in my career. She walked into the room at the appointed time all smiles, projecting warmth and a supercool vibe at the same time. Though I had interviewed my share of celebrities, as she reached for my hand to say hello, I was hit by a slight case of nerves—a rarity for me. But Michelle Obama radiates power and confidence unlike anyone I have ever met.
I was momentarily awestruck.
I took a couple of quiet breaths and then we both sat down.
We made small talk about the weather and our children as we put on our mikes. I had been promised fifteen minutes with her, but she coolly whispered to me that she would give me all the time we needed, immediately putting me at ease. It’s usually my job to keep the interviewee calm, not the other way around. I sure was grateful though.
I keep a picture from that day in my office as a reminder of that special day. Mrs. Obama is beaming in a white blouse and black jacket, and I’m in a classic news reporter’s red blazer, holding my notepad—with an equally broad grin.
Not many people at that point—including African Americans—truly believed that a black candidate, even one with Barack Obama’s sterling credentials, had a real shot at the presidency. But Michelle Obama knew in her heart that her husband would win the election.
When I asked her if minorities should support her husband and finally elect a black president, she quickly answered with a surprising “No.” She said that people should support her husband if they believe in his ideals and ability to change the country.
We spoke for half an hour about her passionate hopes and dreams for the country and why she believed her husband was the answer. She was unruffled when I threw her some hardballs, pressing her about the Clintons, who many felt were dismissive of her husband’s chances during the rough-and-tumble of the campaign.
“It’s all politics,” she said.
Some people in the media had dubbed Michelle Obama “the Closer,” hinting at her ability to help close the deal between the voters and her husband. And after interviewing her that day, I understood why. Articulate, captivating and well versed on the issues, she was what we call in TV a “sound-bite machine.” She had confidence and was all kinds of savvy. This was a woman who believed. She believed in possibility and she believed in her husband.
After the interview, with our mikes off, we compared notes about our hectic lives and motherhood. We have children around the same ages and agreed that we were in for big challenges as they entered adolescence. Yet another connection I felt to this amazing and inspiring woman, who wasn’t just an icon but a real woman—like when I complimented the beautiful patent leather boots she was wearing and she told me where to get them! I found them on sale and still refer to them as my Michelle Obama boots.
As a reporter, I was pleased with the interview; as a woman, I was blown away by Michelle Obama. This was someone who had learned to push past barriers and to claim success despite the odds. Like me, and so many other minority women in the country, she knew what it was like to be the lone black woman in an office meeting. Yet she wasn’t the least bit discouraged or intimidated. No doubt she had dealt with her share of struggles and disappointments, but here she was, hopeful and brimming with enthusiasm.
I left that meeting feeling hopeful for the future, more determined than ever to shine brighter in my own life and believing that anything is possible.
• • •
Another powerful interview that changed my perspective came a few years later. I was scheduled to interview the chart-topping singer Jennifer Hudson about her new album. Like a lot of people, I had been a huge admirer of Jennifer’s golden vocal cords ever since she appeared on American Idol. The woman could belt out a ballad that would shake you to your toes! So I was excited to meet her. It was also the first time Jennifer would be doing an interview since the tragic shooting deaths of her mom and nephew. My producer and I were cautioned by Jennifer’s PR folks that she was interested in talking only about music and her well-documented weight loss. In other words, don’t grill her about her personal heartbreak.
A few days later we sat down with Jennifer at six p.m. in a studio space in Midtown Manhattan. I brought my daughter, Leila, along since she is a big fan. We both popped our heads into the makeup room to say hello and break the ice. We were surprised by Jennifer’s bubbly personality as her makeup artist powdered her brow.
“How nice to meet you, Leila,” Jennifer said with a huge smile.
She asked how old she was and promised to be ready in just a couple of minutes. Leila beamed, and I was touched by the kindness of such a huge star.
As promised, Jennifer, radiant in a beautiful orange dress and sky-high heels, soon slid into her chair and we began talking. We discussed her love of music and the birth of her two biggest blessings: her career break on American Idol and her then-eighteenth-month-old-son, David. She absolutely lit up describing her baby boy and all that he was learning.
I then asked her about her new svelte figure, which she was thrilled about and happy to discuss. The interview was going very well, with lots of fun and energy. But I knew that viewers wanted to know how Jennifer was coping with her pain. So I swallowed hard and decided to gently veer into that forbidden territory. I asked where she was finding joy, given her obvious pain.
To my amazement, Jennifer didn’t flinch and began to talk about how her religious faith had gotten her through. I waited for one of her PR reps to jump in, but no one did. Though tears rimmed her eyes, Jennifer was actually at ease, talking about her deep love and admiration for her mother and how her relationship with God brought Jennifer great comfort. Her strength and unshakable faith during such a devastating time touched all of us in the room.
While Jennifer Hudson’s talent had taken her far beyond her South Side Chicago roots, she still possessed a steely inner strength. After suffering such a devastating loss, one I couldn’t imagine suffering through, here she was finding inspiration in her music, her work and her child. Jennifer spoke of rebuilding her life and finding her joy again. I was stunned and deeply touched by the strength I was witnessing. If she could move beyond the most unimaginable loss, then surely any of us can get past our daily struggles.
We ended the interview talking about the lullabies she sings to her baby boy. Jennifer even sang the little song she had made up for him. When she finished, we all applauded. After all, it’s not every day you get a private concert from Jennifer Hudson.
After the cameras were turned off, Jennifer amazed me once again by pulling Leila aside for a private conversation. When I told her that Leila takes voice lessons, she asked Leila to sing a bit—then kindly offered to turn her head away so that my shy daughter wouldn’t feel self-conscious singing for such a superstar. Leila took a deep breath and sang a few stanzas from “Listen,” a song Beyoncé sang in Dreamgirls, the movie for which Jennifer won an Oscar. Her voice was strong, and Jennifer applauded for her! She then took the time to encourage Leila to believe in herself and to keep singing.
I’d always liked what I saw of Jennifer Hudson from afar, but now I admired her even more. She is an amazingly generous woman who made time for a starry-eyed girl. Above all, she was managing to find the beauty in life again, even after suffering through unspeakable pain. I went home that evening feeling strengthened and inspired in my own life and prayed that Leila felt the same. And before I went to bed, I called my mom, just to hear her voice and cherish her a little bit more.
Kindness Is Like a Boomerang— It Always Comes Back
The Art of Saying Nothing
Sometimes I think I see life as a sitcom with four cameras out there and a laugh track. I find myself fighting my urge to make snappy remarks. Just as a stand-up comic getting heckled wants to come back with some biting line, I can’t just let things go. Sometimes my daughter will even egg me on because (I think) she appreciates my one-liners from time to time. Leila has my mother’s “tee-hee” sense of humor and that pot-stirring, mischievous demeanor, which I absolutely adore. You might say she was born with a wooden spoon in her hand to stir that pot! Like mine, her humor tends to fall toward self-effacing and self-deprecating—believing that it is a sin to be prideful. It works for us and usually gets a laugh.
My love for the zinger started when I was a boy. I loved to draw cartoon and comics, where I could have my characters say anything. I could ascribe my thoughts to other people and get away with it because it wasn’t actually me lobbing those one-liners.
One of my favorite TV shows was Winchell-Mahoney Time. Paul Winchell was the preeminent ventriloquist of the day. His wooden “partners,” Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smith, were superstars of the ventriloquism world. I bought Winchell’s book Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit and devoured every word. I had a Jerry Mahoney dummy I renamed Steven Stickyfingers, because the dummy’s fingers were molded together.
My act became pretty good. Steven and I took second place in the 1964 New York City parks department talent contest. We lost to a group of four girls lip-synching the Beatles song “I Want to Hold Your Hand” while dressed in turtlenecks, tights and mop-top wigs. There weren’t a lot of black kids doing ventriloquist acts in the early 1960s, so I was kind of an anomaly. I was in seventh heaven the first time I saw Willie Tyler and Lester in 1972, when they made their first appearance on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Doing ventriloquism gave me the perfect outlet to say things as a kid I would never have gotten away with if that dummy weren’t in my hand. Unfortunately, my career didn’t last long because my brother broke my dummy.
Ever since, though, when it comes to going for that perfect one-liner, the obvious punch line, the “I just can’t help myself” comeback, I sometimes feel like that guy you see in cartoons who has the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other battling it out. I know if I say what I’m thinking, especially if it’s directed toward my wife, she is not going to be happy with me. I actually have a dialogue with myself that sounds something like this:
“Yes, say it. It is going to be really funny.”
“No! You know you should keep your mouth shut.”
“Go ahead. You should definitely say it.”
“No! Don’t say it.”
“Maybe she doesn’t know that I don’t know I shouldn’t say it.”
“Say it, damn it!”
. . . And then I do.
I just can’t help myself.
It’s like a pitch coming across home plate that you just have to swing at. You can’t not swing unless you’ve been tied up, and even then, you lunge at it because you have to.
Was it worth it?
But in the moment, it felt so good.
It’s like a drug that feels fantastic and great until the thrill wears off and the reality of my actions sets in.
And when I don’t say something, I feel a great need to point it out like a loyal dog who drops a dead animal at your feet with pride and a pitiful look that says, “Love me! I brought this for YOU!” He stands there wagging his tail, looking for praise, thinking he’s done something marvelous. Yeah, that doesn’t pay off much either.
There is a definite art to saying nothing. I haven’t exactly mastered that skill yet. Every time I think about saying something, I analyze the risk versus reward—which is what all of life really comes down to.
What are the risks of saying this?
What is going to happen if I do?
Am I going to be able to have sex tonight?
Will the evening remain pleasant?
Will we be able to go out with our friends without recrimination or reproach?
For that one moment of “YES!” is it worth it?
Sometimes less is more, especially when it comes to speaking. It reminds me of a story I once heard about a preacher, a politician and an engineer who were each led to a guillotine to meet their fate.
The preacher was first to be executed. When he was asked if he wanted to face up or down when he met his fate, he said he wanted to face upward, so he could be looking toward the heavens when he met his Maker. The preacher’s head was placed upon the guillotine, where he remained still and calm, awaiting his imminent death. As the blade was released, it miraculously stopped just inches above his throat. Believing this was divine intervention, the executioners set the preacher free.
Table of Contents
1 Never Give Up on Your Dreams
Growing Up In the Segregated South 5
My Most Memorable Presidential Inauguration 12
Women of Influence 16
2 Kindness is Like a Boomerang-It Always Comes Back
The Art of Saying Nothing 23
The Time of Day Belongs to Everyone 28
WWAD… What Would Al Do? 35
3 The Power of an Apology
It's Not About You-It's About Me 39
The Importance of Listening to Our Kids 48
4 Grace Under Pressure
A Gown, a Tux, a Tutu and a Funeral 53
Our Trials Have Lessons to Teach Us 59
Boots on the Ground 65
5 Don't Confuse the Wedding with the Marriage
Don't Confuse the Wedding with the Marriage 75
Men Always Want to Have Sex 82
Weathering the Storm 87
Sometimes You Have to Get Away 96
6 Family Is Forever
Choices We Make as Patents 103
What Do Soupy Sales and Drake Have in Common? 109
Mom Guilt 116
The Opposite of Mom Guilt 121
Kids (and Dogs) Invading the Bedroom 127
7 Actions Speak Louder Than Words
CEO of the Home 133
Lessons My Father Taught Me 139
Many Ways to Say I Love You 144
Coping with an Ailing Parent 148
8 I Am Who I Am
Everyone Has Their Kombucha 159
Does This Sound Familiar? 164
9 Can You Hear Me Now?
How Do You Work This Thing? 175
Antisocial Media 183
10 Learning to Slow Down
Taxicab Therapy 193
Oh! Christmas Tree 196
What's the Hurry? 207
11 The Importance of Friendships
Your Husband Can't Be Your End-All 213
The Value of Friendship 218
Losing My Best Friend 224
The World's Greatest Puppy! 231
12 People Are Not Labels
Don't Label Your Kids 239
Jumping into the Lake of Life 250
13 Life Is Full of Hard Choices
Sacrifices We Make as Moms 257
Struggling with My Decisions 264