The Ties that Blind

Re-publishing this from the original writing on February 4 of this year.

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We are imploding, self-devouring and it’s only a matter of time, it feels before we are required to wear badges which denote our political affiliation of choice. Race is no longer as dividing a topic as politics — despite the fact that we can choose not only our affiliation but how we approach and manifest it — but we are not given the ability to choose the color of our skin. I was brought up in a city that is majority African-American, yet I am cotton ball white, blonde hair, green eyes and all. I never, though, really give it much thought. In the city of my birth we are blessed to have things which unite us like our NBA team, music, food and spirituality; of course, we are different and thank God for that. I’ve always felt that our city is more interesting and — unlike that bastion of white hipsterness in the center of our state — possesses a soul and a heartbeat all its own because of not only our African American population, but because of the similarly, wildly diverse influence of the considerable Jewish, Greek and Italian communities with which we are blessed. I read on the Twitter profile of someone last night who was tweeting about our team during their game (yes, OUR team), something along the lines of “Memphis born. Wherever I go, Memphis always.” To understand that, I suspect you would have to have been born here or at least have lived here for a large part of your life. I’ve lived all over the world, but Memphis is home. It is inexplicable, gut-wrenching, liberating, unique and at times frustrating. The first time I came home after moving to London almost 20 years ago, I remember flying over my alma mater on the descending flight path, as so many planes do, and the tears welling up uncontrollably and without warning in my eyes. I could not wait to get out of here, both as a child and in the early years of adulthood, so this unconscious reaction to returning to the city which I now recognize holds my roots — the true source of my spirit and fire as an individual — took me by surprise and caused me to question all that I had thought I knew of my home’s influence on me as a person.

I am a Grizzlies fanatic, often flying home from cities distant to make it to important games and always finding a way to watch, regardless of where I am in the world. I am also, as my son would tell you, at times embarrassingly passionate, yelling at refs for what I see as biased calls or scolding our players for blowing a screen or squandering a full shot clock with an attempt at a 3 when everyone knows your strength is defense (Ahem, TA). When we sit shoulder to shoulder, as close to floor level as we can get, I never give a thought to the tone of the skin of the person sitting next to, in front or behind me; the only thing I notice is whether or not they are wearing the colors of my team or if they are an opponent import who is likely to wish me dead by halfway through the first quarter. We are not black, white, yellow, purple, gay, straight, whatever — we are Grizz fans and largely, we are Memphians. The same sort of dynamic can be seen in some of the best restaurants in town or in the church pews of any number of congregations, and it does not necessarily depend on generation. My son’s generation, I am proud to say – though rife with liberal faux righteousness – is as color blind as any ever born. My 70-year-old mom, born in rural Tennessee to a father who freely made use of the N-word, truly believes that Zach Randolph, Tony Allen and Mike Conley are her kids, despite her being a size zero white woman. I can tell you that she would, without hesitation, throw me over for any one of them on any given day and would nag them to within an inch of their lives with her motherly orders just as she has me every day of mine. She would also, it must be added, give a kidney to marry me off to Vince Carter. I am not saying we are immune to divisiveness or that it isn’t more prevalent for or to others than it is to me; I’m saying that there is a sense that the toughness that comes from having been brought up in a place like Memphis, — and the reputation we have amongst outsiders who have never spent time here — gives us the bond of a siege mentality; “Memphis vs. Errbody,” as our growl towels and t-shirts proudly state. Prejudice exists – I’m not denying that – but the transcendence of it is possible, if only momentarily, and it is often in spite of all other obvious attributes that would otherwise divide.

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The Poison of Pretense

Or What Happens When The Polite Right Meets the Loved-up Left

I woke up this morning to the news of the lovely candlelight vigil on the campus of the University of Virginia. Concerned that their opposite-viewed peers would not be able to see during their protest over the presence of a Confederate statue, a group of civic-minded individuals gathered to help light the way. In the end, there was some amount of discord but mostly because the fumes from the torches were a bit overwhelming and things got a bit crowded and heated. Nothing at all out of the ordinary, just some high-spirited, start-of-term camaraderie. As you were.

Isn’t that what happened?

No. But why tell the truth when pretending is so much more convenient and digestible? Of course, no news outlet actually covered the events of last evening in anything remotely resembling the summary I just provided above, but would it be so unbelievable if one had? Twenty years ago, yes. Today, no.

I was brought up in the South; not the polite, “butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth” South, but the ballsy, say it like it is, don’t waste anyone’s time, don’t make an ass of yourself, don’t whine and never, ever let the neighbor boy borrow your quad bike South. A South that is all but gone, replaced slowly, almost imperceptibly over a number of years by the “polite” South whose habits and graces are built around religion, manners and the ever-present concern of the perception of “the right thing” to say or do. “Isn’t she a sweet little thing” is commonly known to mean, “What an insipid little dumbass.” Of course the more infamous and widely known, “Well bless your heart,” basically means the same thing, but is far more wide ranging and can be anything from, “Oh sweetie, your husband is gay. You know that, right?” To “Even a plastic potted plant has a higher IQ than you.” But why don’t we just say it? Because it wouldn’t be “nice;” it’s “just not done.” Or my most derided, “How would that look?” Well, the truth, as it was once known, used to not only be done, look just fine and be nice, but it made for a far more efficient and straightforward way of life.

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They Say It’s Your Birthday

Yep, I do. I’m forty-eight years new today and consider that, on balance, I now spend only about twenty-five percent of my time being naive and neurotic as my second greatest accomplishment after my son. If you read this blog (and if you don’t, well, you’re already here so you’d may as well) you know that I’ve parted with my expensive things, moved to a village in Wales and have generally rediscovered what it’s like to simply not give a damn, and it’s lovely. It’s so lovely, in fact, that I have a difficult time getting fired up enough to find topics about which I am passionate enough to write. Maybe this is what Eminem meant when he said that once his struggles were over, his creativity deserted him. Now that I’m not part of the stress-hewn populace of the never-ending marathon to who can be most frayed in the good ole U S of A, I’m just not that pissed off anymore. About anything. So yes, Em, bro – I got you. We’re just alike, you and I. Well, except for the upbringing, addictions, crazy mom and misogynist lyrics. But the loss of good material and the pale skin thing I can totally relate to. We must at least both share an almost constant need for SPF 50. But I digress.

As I sneak up on fifty from behind and hope that it does not notice that I have somehow managed to go so far untouched by things most others suffer from age, I have chosen to do so in a way so as not to anger the gods that have allowed me to remain largely preserved, and I have also become more reflective. I’ve thought a lot lately about how I ended up this way; here, metaphorically and practically, in this space metaphysically and in Wales geographically and how it is that I managed to survive given how many people I’ve pissed off along the way. You see, if it weren’t my birthday this entry would instead be entitled, “Parents, Teach Your Children Well,” except that it would be a caveat emptor to doing so too well, as my parents did. My parents = two of the most decent, honest, hard-working people who ever lived. Period. But they were also, I’m afraid, incredibly naive, and in bringing my sis and me up with certain beliefs or standards, also set us up to be almost constantly at odds with something or someone or the universe at large. So as I scrape the bottom of nearing fifty, it occurs to me that an alternative parenting guide might have just made my life a bit easier, made me a bit more patient and calm, and would have kept me from being able to anger people who otherwise have the temporal constitution of the Dalai Lama himself.


Revised Parenting Lesson 1:

My parents, for example, when it came to honesty and hard work repeated such trite phrases as “it doesn’t matter what you do, do it better than anyone else.” Or, “as long as you work hard and do your best at whatever you choose, life will take care of you and we will be proud.” And then there was “take pride in your work and be sure you know your job better than anyone else.” Or the most often conflated and abused, “hard work pays.”

This is why I am good at what I do; I do work hard and I do try to ensure that I know more about my given field than anyone else, or at least better than the clients who pay me their hard-earned money to instill upon them skills they do not themselves possess. It is also why I, almost daily, want to reach through a phone line or across a sales counter and strangle customer service representatives at almost any number of companies. Because I know an increasingly astonishing amount more their goods or services than they do, and I also seem to care more despite being their customer rather than someone who is – I don’t know – paid to work for and ‘service’ the needs of said company’s clients. So no, mom and dad, other children were not taught the same standards we had instilled in us by you and if you really wanted to help us, you would’ve said, “hard work pays, but there are also lots of idiots out there and the real world is a minefield of laziness and willful ignorance wherein yes, you will excel, but only because your competition is so entirely unprepared, uninformed and stoned on sugary treats their parents let them have but of which we deprived you in place of spinach which made your neurons super-connected and has made you this hyper-efficient nerd ball of excellence. But you also be occasionally tripped up, blown off course or even blown to bits by one of these idiot-mines, so never go anywhere without your bullshit repelling flack-jacket. And a really good and loyal attorney.” But they didn’t, so here I am. Warning you to do so for yours.

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Andreas in Paris

Quite an extensive excerpt from the next book.

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Andreas, Paris

August 2006

My son went home to school at the end of July because he was still wait-listed for our school of choice in Hong Kong. It was less than ideal, and I made the more than 15-hour journey monthly to see him, but I was divorced and by far the major bread winner in our family, so doing just that took priority, and especially when paid at the level I was. Having been born myself into the most supportive family on earth, I knew quite well that he was as loved and safe and coddled and adored in my parents’ care as any one child could ever be, and in fact probably better off there in any case, at least for now. 

Andreas and I had arranged to meet in Paris the day before my birthday, and spend three nights together there. In the same room. For most women on their 36th, this might not have been a stretch, but for me, it was a knowing leap into an unknown abyss. It’s not just the pall that hangs over the entire event, e.g. the inevitability of sex, but also the immediate familiarity of showering, toilet habits, changing – like the express train to knowing far too much about someone you’d very possibly prefer to just adore from a distance.

We were staying at Le Meurice, my Paris habit that somewhat parallels my London one, though not to the same extent of frequency or familiarity, and when there I often arranged a special pedicure that is anathema elsewhere in the world. Andreas wasn’t due to arrive until that evening after work, so I did some light shopping, had the pedicure, took a long, hot bath and settled in for the wait. And wait. I do not remember exactly what time it was, except that it was about ten minutes after his flight was meant to have departed from Munich when he called. He had arrived at the Air France counter to be told that though his ticket had been purchased, an e-ticket had never been issued. As such, they had to call the ticketing center in France to manually issue it. From what he said – and from the near outraged tone of his voice – he truly lost his temper. They dawdled about for long enough that he had missed the last flight to Paris that evening. He had texted me when he arrived at the airport, so I knew he had arrived there in plenty of time and had wondered why I never heard back before the scheduled departure. Now I knew.

He toyed with the notion of renting a car and driving, but I told him that I would stay awake worrying as it would be the well into the wee hours of the morning before he would arrive. He retorted that he did not want me to wake up alone on my birthday. In the end, instead of going back into town, he checked into an airport hotel in Munich and took the first flight out the next morning.

By the time he arrived, I was understandably more anxious than I might otherwise have been, but when I opened the door to our opulent room, all I could see was a gigantic bouquet of flowers consuming my view. I giggled aloud and he moved them to one side so I could see his face, which was looking me up and down in an intentionally mischievous, almost mock-seductive manner. He kissed me on both cheeks and came inside. Never one to rest on his laurels, he immediately announced, after putting his bags in the dressing room, that he had berated the staff for not sending a bottle of champagne on my birthday, and that it was on its way up along with plastic cups, a satchel, and other goodies. It arrived far more quickly than I anticipated, leaving me with the notion that he had arranged this prior to his arrival, and within minutes we were making our way across the Rue de Rivoli, past the Tuileries and down towards the Seine.

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Lonely or Alone

And if the night runs over
And if the day won’t last
And if your way should falter
Along the stony pass it’s just a moment
This time will pass

~ U2, Stuck in a Moment

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Bono has been quoted as saying that he wrote the song Stuck in a Moment about an imaginary argument with his late friend Michael Hutchence, an argument in which Bono would have been trying to cajole him or “slap him around the head a bit,” to talk him out of committing suicide.  I wonder how many people know how it feels to wish they had said or done something – or even known – about someone close to them contemplating the most final of actions.

I have never spoken about the suicide of my friend earlier this year. I was standing at baggage claim at DC’s Reagan National Airport texting back and forth with my very best friend of more than forty years, talking nonsense, really, interspersed with tidbits about my godkids or when I would next be home to visit when out of the blue one of the texts popped up unceremoniously and like every other before it except that it said, “Oh my God, Wagner killed himself.” I didn’t skip a beat. I closed the text window and called my friend and said, “Why are you just now telling me this?” To which she replied, “I literally just found out the second I told you. I’m sorry. I’ll find out what I can and let you know. Are you coming home?”

No. I wasn’t going home.

In retrospect I suppose what I was experiencing was shock of some variant; I didn’t feel anything. I got into the Uber as I always did – almost every week in the same spot – and road in silence to The Jefferson, was handed the key, made my way up to the suite to which I’d been upgraded – my favorite, they know –  threw my things on the floor and went about my evening as though nothing had happened. Except that it had. I changed into my running clothes and left the hotel taking a right heading down toward the White House and the mall beyond. When I returned I retraced my footsteps back to my room, went directly into the bathroom, disrobed, stepped into the oversized shower and as soon as the water hit me, I came undone. I cried so convulsively I could not stand and instead ended up sitting on the floor of the shower for what seemed like an hour, but I had and have no concept of the time that passed. When the water began to run cold and the well of my tears had seemingly run dry, I stood, turned off the water, wrapped myself in a towel and then a robe, took my usual place on the large, stuffed-mattress bed, ordered my dinner and went back to work.

My emotional fallout from his death and from the utter wrongness of it by virtue of it having been choice remained in that shower, in that cube, washed down the drain with the sweat of my run and collective grunge of my travel as though it never happened.

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The Shedding

Do you have a $12,000 dollar sofa? I did. I don’t know why, but I did. I also used to have two Cartier watches, two Bulgaris and an extra little Hermes that I threw on for more casual occasions.

Actually, I do know why I had those things; because I hated my life. More specifically, I hated my job which consumed my life and made me into someone I never wanted to be. I have heard numerous times over the years people whom I would deem as hippies say things about how we are slaves to our possessions and that the only true freedom is owning nothing. Of course in their version, there was also usually some added on mini-diatribe about being watched by, and slaves to “the man.” Discount or derive whatever you wish from any part of that, but it took me until the age of forty-seven to figure out that what they really mean is that ridding yourself of possessions allows you to be owned by nothing; and no one.

It took me to forty-seven to figure out that the reason I worked so hard to make ever-increasing amounts of money is because I craved the freedom that can be bought with large sums of money, except that along the way, I would become so unhappy with the daily toil of my life that I would buy myself treats. Mini-motivators, congratulatory concessions, feel good pick me ups, to get me through the hellish day/week/month/meeting and back to my apartment/hotel room/flight. All the while, my expensive tastes in mood-elevating materialism consumed ever larger portions of the money I made driving the need to earn even more, acquire larger clients, take on new roles and do even more things that I despised, resented or which made me feel like a soul for rent. I could tell myself whatever I wanted to, but I wasn’t working to buy my ultimate freedom; I was working to pay off the monthly limitless Amex. I had been captured by capitalism in the most gilded of cages and extricating myself from its grasps would become a dance of mutually abusive agony.

I suppose I should be thankful that I figured it out at all, let alone while still at an age where I could stop, take stock and make the serious changes required to keep me from dying in regret of never having truly lived.

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Everyone’s Weird and So Am I

Once right after we first moved back to the US from Hong Kong, we were sitting in a bar in Nashville on a warm Summer day with my sister who already lived there and some of her more Bohemian – yet connected – local friends when out of the blue one particular friend looked at us both and blurted out, “You’re both princesses. You’re, like, from another planet or something. Like if someday you call me and say you’re marrying an actual prince, I won’t be remotely surprised.” It was typical of her, to be sure, but not typical based on what I thought or think of myself by any means. Yet if I were capable of being removed, objective and entirely honest about myself, I would say that there probably are times people have looked at me or my sis or my son or some combination of us and thought, “I want what they have,” in the way I’ve looked at others and thought the same. Except that no. No you don’t.

I have thick, curly, shiny naturally strawberry blonde hair that makes hairdressers drool. I also have every other genetic quirk that comes from having been born a true ginger aka I can’t be outside in sunlight in any months other than December and January without turning purple. I am prone to skin cancer, my sister and I both have that scary womany cancer gene which we inherited from our mom, I was down one ovary by the age of 35 because of a predisposition for ovarian cancer based on the pumpkin patch of cysts it had grown over the years + that whole gene thing, and my IQ is so high and my memory so exact that I understand everything and forget nothing which means I torture myself 22 hours a day and sleep maybe – if I’m lucky – the other 2. No one can lie to me because of my memory – it’s impossible – and because I’m also an INTP, I trust no one and think that marriage is a legalized form of indentured slavery (it totally is). I make disgusting amounts of money and though I am exceptional with numbers, I spend massively because I’m bored and also because – I suspect – I subconsciously push the envelope of earning in order to ensure I have some sort of ever-present challenge in my life. And lastly – given the choice – I’d happily live alone in our little house in Wales, speak to no one, write, have sheep as pets and never shave any part of my body again.

But if you saw me – trust me – not one of those things would occur to you as even the most remote of possibilities.

One of my bosses was a CEO named Drew. Not really, but I think he’d either sue or kill himself if I used his real name, so we’ll stick with Drew. He’s a good-looking man, he really is, and he dresses impeccably. He’s exceptionally bright but also has one of the best personalities of anyone I have ever met in my life. And he’s neurotic. Not just sort of neurotic, but diagnosed paranoid bipolar who should be on a cocktail of drugs but does not “like the way they make [him] feel,” so he is off them far more often than on him which leads him to have worse judgement than a virginal, pubescent boy in a whore house. He is so paranoid about his various and sundry transgressions that he’s just sure it will all be taken from him at any moment. Without warning and as punishment for all that he has done. As such he does really strange things like leave airports if he “senses” something wrong and instead rents a car to drive as much as 16 hours to reach his destination. He’ll skip meetings if he thinks there’s someone in them who knows something about him no one else does because he’s convinced that they are actually only there to get even with him and that they will blurt out everything they know about him in front of a room full of C-level executives. He’s been married three times going on six because he humps everything with a vagina but plays the doting, perfect dad. Oh, sorry. Did I not mention that he is also a malignant narcissist? Yes, that, too.

But if you met him in first class on a plane, you’d be giving him a lap dance before wheels up, even if you’re a straight dude or a nun. But he, my friends, is the world’s greatest mask covering perhaps the world’s biggest natural disaster.

Then there is another boss I had who only works where he does because they did not – at the time he was hired – do background checks. If they had – or if they had taken a peek inside of his car – they would have discovered that he was convicted of felony reckless endangerment for his sixth DUI in which he did gross bodily harm to the person in the car he hit. He also has two outstanding bench warrants in two different states for reasons not entirely clear to me, and for the first three years of his employment still had a sobriety-check blow ignition on his car. But he was hired as an SVP and eventually made partner because he’s a dude, he’s non-threatening, he plays the game and – I suspect – knows that the married CEO and married Creative Director of the agency in question are actually in a long term, extra-marital gay relationship.

One of my roommates in college was a runway model. She worked in Milan, Paris and New York and was signed with the Ford Agency. She was and is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known, but also by far the most insecure. She thought she was alternately ugly, fat, had bad skin, wasn’t terribly interesting and had nothing to offer, none of which was true. Her nose, though, is the work of a good surgeon, as are her perfect boobs.

Another guy who used to work on one of my teams should be getting royalties from The 40 Year Old Virgin franchise. He comes across as macho, rugged and distant but is actually very quiet, bright and has a massive collection of action figures and lunch boxes still in their original packaging. But that would be the very last thought you’d have about him if you were to come across him in a bar.

One of my closest friends is also a former beauty queen who is now married to someone who has a Grammy casually sitting on the piano in their family home. I’ve held her hair while she puked and we have lengthy conversations about our respective relationships with our aging moms and our own issues that arrived along with our late forties, and pretty much everything else on earth.

My very best friend’s brother is now her sister and my military boarding school, VMI attending ex-husband is camp as Christmas. But really bad at it to the extent that I’m pretty sure their team would like nothing more than to trade him back, but he chose and you’re keeping him. So tough twinkies.

One of the wealthiest men I know – five homes across four countries, yacht, countless cars – hates his life, cannot stand his wife and is disappointed in his sons. He’s also increasingly vulnerable about his age, his virility, his desirability and every other personal attribute one can imagine. And he is constantly, 100% of the time, miserable.

No one is perfect. There is no such thing as “baggage;” it’s called life and the richness of it – the ups and downs – are what make us who we are. Striving to be something we are not or pretending to be someone we never could be leads only to disillusion, unhappiness and ultimately, a potentially wasted existence. Be who you are. Fly your freak flag, wear your nerd badge, flaunt your flaws. Life is short and that isn’t just something people say. It’s the truth.

Hindsight (The Store Owner Man)

I was not an attractive child. A learned man in our town once told my Mother that he was certain that I would one day grow into a great beauty. The features were there, he assured her, just masked behind the muscular – if not masculine – pudge, ginger hair, and oversized freckles. Of course, the man was not from our time; he merely lived there. He was an outsider – a Yankee, to be precise – and perhaps one of the only people there who was capable of seeing beyond.

I was not an attractive child, but I was a bright child, and in a small Southern town where all of the girls seemed to have been of landed money that somehow entitled them to be born with blonde hair, skinny, never-ending limbs and privilege, I needed something to which I could cling in order to ensure my escape. Both then and later.

I was a bright child, but not as perceptive in hindsight as I would have then proclaimed myself to be. I was loud and brash and preferred the company of adults to the exclusionary treatment at the hands of my peers. My days were never good, at best being ostracized at the hands of the popular and yet shunned by the ones they considered undesirables. At worst, I suffered endless abuse from classmates and teachers alike. I was in my own class; between, wherein only I dwelled. I was brash and I was loud to make it seem okay. To make me seem okay.

My parents were loving – if not obsessed – and yet not overly affectionate or effusive. I knew we were the center of their world, but somehow for me, that was not enough. When you are young and insecure, the love shown by working two jobs to provide you with the best is not as apparent as showing up for school plays or field days. And so their overwhelming devotion having been interpreted by me as a slight, I was attention and affection-starved.

Our daily routine was the same. I went to school. I hated it. I longed for 3:15. After school, I went to the sitter’s house, a not very nice woman named Yvonne who for some unknown or perhaps uninformed reason insisted that her name was actually pronounced WHY-VON in the most heinous of Southern tones. The white trash kind, at the most opposite end of the dialectical spectrum from anything resembling genteel. Whether or not she knew that they phonetics of her name amplified the perception of her as having an inborn inhospitable nature, I did not and do not know. She was a dreadful woman who made no secret of the fact that she looked after children for only the financial benefit derived from filling a market void rather than from any form of maternal or nurturing instinct that may have existed within her. If possible, she liked me even less than I did her. I was not attractive and I did not obey. I would lie on the floor of humid green shag looking out through the screened front door from the time we arrived until the time we departed, just waiting for my mother’s Cadillac to appear in the driveway with the same anticipation and impatience I otherwise reserved for the school clock.

Mom would occasionally come on time, but never early. On Fridays, she was always late.

 

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Empathy for the Devil

A 22-year-old young man arrived back home last night to his parents after more than one year of indefensible imprisonment by a megalomaniacal dictator. At least he’s home, one could think, were it not for the fact that he is in a coma and most likely has no idea that he is now back in the presence of his loving family.

In Pennsylvania, another group of young men are on trial for the fraternity hazing death of a young pledge; the accused, who had just testified, were seen laughing and smiling outside of court afterward.

Somewhere in Syria, an idiot boy nicknamed “Jihadi Jack,” who is actually a middle-class Protestant child from bucolic England has decided that playing with ISIS is no fun. He “hates them now” and “wants to come home.”

Three families have lost their sons of all approximately the same age, in various ways and to varying degrees.

The first should have never happened and our government should have intervened to ensure he was safely returned so that his homecoming could have been long ago and far more celebratory. They did nothing. Yes, I squarely blame the impotence of the Obama administration, but not just for Otto Warmbier’s situation, but for its flaccid continuation of the “well, they aren’t really hurting anyone” attitude toward North Korea and the cartoon-like, round, troll dictator Kim Jong Un. And where were we, the American public? Why weren’t we more up at arms? We all have kids; we are all someone’s kid. It’s not partisan, surely. It’s not like Democrats have daughters and Republicans have sons.

The second is a result of the illness in our society and our tendency to overlook the abject debauchery-fueled behavior of college kids, especially if they’re privileged and white. Yes, I really said that; yes, I am a Republican. And yes, I am also the mom of one very white and quite privileged fraternity member son. I would never, though, say something so stupid and invitational of cosmic retribution as, “but my son would never,” because that’s what everyone thinks. That’s what creates the bubbles of excusability that produce boys such as this; kids who would inflict heartless abuse on one of their own; one of their “brothers.” No one teaches their kids anything that remotely resembles empathy anymore. I am by no means a religious person, but that’s possibly because as a child we were in church every time the doors opened; I suffer from permanent Southern Baptist hell, fire and brimstone fatigue. But guess what? Some of it stuck. Two things of the greatest importance in my life, and one of which would have served these boys well both in this instance and were they to read and absorb the story of Otto Warmbier. Or if they are forced to face the actual reality and resultant consequences of their own despicable actions: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The third is a manifest example of the modern day laziness that is now pervasive in parenting. Whereas the privileged white American kids may have a bubble that at least keeps them from thinking that beheading innocents in a desert halfway around the world sounds like a good Saturday night, the children of those too absent to care and too distant – and frankly stupid – to see what their kids are doing online and in their free time are enticed by precisely that. They have no grounding, no roots, no identity, no spirituality, no goals, no motivation and no capacity to even realize that the absence of even one of these – let alone multiple – is in itself a reason for concern. “Well, I just want him to be who he will be,” or, “I just don’t want to box him in. I shouldn’t really even say ‘him;’ that’s too gender-identity-definitive,” and, “I’ll just let him discover. I love him, I do, but we’ve all got to figure out things on our own.” In this case, their precious darling will, if he’s every captured, be discovering the inside of a British high-security prison cell. If he’s not intercepted, he’s likely to figure out how unforgiving his once beloved brothers-in-arms can be when one of their converts reverts.

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The Unbearable Pressure of Being

Last Saturday night, we were invited to a small party in honor of our son’s best friend who had recently graduated from college, as had mine. For us, it was a celebration for all of our sons – four in total – of a tight-knit group who actually only became friends because of our boys and the unbelievable bond of friendship they share. Over the last eight years, their relationships spread to us and we often spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and even Summer vacations abroad together, so synchronous was their friendship and our ease with one another. Last weekend would be no different, and perhaps even easier than ever before; the hard part was done, we were all relaxed, caterers and bartenders had been hired and all we had to do was sit on the expansive deck in the perfect Southern sunset and enjoy our wine and conversation.

Before the sun said its goodnights completely, at which point the boys retired to the pool below as we held our position at the candlelit tables above, I sat with the four of them and discussed their pasts, their futures and genuinely soaked in the joy of each of them and the power of that as it was multiplied exponentially by the concert of their camaraderie. I am blessed to have the son I do, and he is multiply blessed with these friends for life. Privileged? Perhaps. All of them products of a great private school in a well-known Southern enclave, each with parents whose cosmopolitan diversity and success is surpassed only by their respective love for, and devotion to their children. Indeed, it could be this above all that bonds us: to have experienced and enjoyed all that we have in our lives, we are parents first, above all else.

That night we stayed with our friends as we now always do, given the distance between the cities we currently call home. The boys, too, stayed the night, five of them in total squished together in a human puzzle on the large, field-size sectional sofa of the theater room, just as they had so many weekends when they were in high school, and so many holidays when they were in college. When my friend and I made our way downstairs around 11 the next morning, still in our PJs, coffee cups in hand, all of them were up and playing, save one who had arisen early and made his exit. He is our favorite – we all admit it – the happiest, most open, loving, free-spirited among them, and we bemoaned the fact we did not have the chance to bid him a proper farewell and enjoy our tight “other mom” hug.

My son and I drove home later that day, both of us a bit hungover, but recharged with humanity for having spent time with true friends rather than merely existing among those who think they know us but are aware of only what we are prepared to present or they willing to see. We need that, we humans, more often that it is availed and far more often than we admit, especially in the increasingly inhuman and virtual times in which we live. To be reminded that we are not alone, that even those who appear most perfect have issues and frustrations and things they would rather not drag into the light of day, but occasionally do when they are in the rare company of those of kindred spirit and unwavering trust.

The next day at home we started the ugly business of moving as we prepare to return forever to the rural shores of our beloved Wales. It has long been my dream and a promise I made to my son, so to have it come true has infused us both with a heady tonic of tolerance and determination for tasks we might otherwise find tedious and tiresome. But whereas I awoke alert, energized and ready to tackle whatever obstacle needed tearing away to reveal the view of our long-imagined future, my son was subdued, quiet and averted my gaze. I went through the day going from conference call to packing and back again, and he said that he was merely tired and would recover once he’d enjoyed his daily run. He headed out around 2 in the heat of the day and returned shortly after 3, a smelly, humidity soaked mess. He stood at the bar of our kitchen stretching and sweating as I dabbled and chatted, but rather than seeing that the veil of funk had lifted as it usually did post-cardio on days such as these, I detected a heaviness which could not be heaved loose by mere physical jostling. He looked at me directly and said without affectation, “Alex’s mom died.” I replied, stunned, “What? When? We were just with him Saturday night. He was perfect and happy and…”

“This morning, apparently. I don’t know anything more except that it was the result of some addiction,” he said.

Alex is the lovely kid; our favorite, the lightest of heart and most nimble of mind. The one who arose early Sunday and darted from the house before we could say goodbye. My son was mistaken as a result of the shock of the news and we later discovered that she had indeed be found on Sunday morning by Alex’s sister while he was still slumbering between his friends, safely downstairs, below and protected by others who love him as their own. That anything had been wrong at all, I would never have known. That something so dire had transpired left me and our circle in a state of uncomprehending disarray.

We never knew. It had been going on for a number of years. You never know.

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