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 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 town; 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. 

Each day after she collected us, as we made our way around the bypass toward home, we would stop by the Piggly Wiggly to pick up any groceries mom needed and to say hello to our grandmother who was a checkout lady there. I always suspected it was more the latter as mom never bought more than a two day supply of groceries in any one visit, and my dad was not enamored of my mother’s more countrified family. So the daily shop was a ruse for my mother to see her own and one which my dad tolerated knowing that doing so kept her family out of our home.

The store we went to was the new Piggly Wiggly on the north side of town where the new middle class shopped. I never saw any of the mean kids there. Their families shopped at the old one downtown if they shopped at all as most of them had their colored help do their shopping for them. The man who owned our Piggly Wiggly was nice to me. Each day as soon as he would see us enter the store he would step down from his elevated half cubby, half office to greet us — or more specifically me — with a smile and a prolonged, tight hug. I always felt as though he somehow knew that I was picked on and that my loud-mouthed bravado was merely a mask for the emotional blows that were inflicted daily, and that he was trying to tell me, in his own way, that none of it mattered. His attention was always for me rather than for my older, pretty sister and it made me feel special; relieved somehow. Each day after a friendly hello and the requisite hug, my mom would remind me not to hog his time and would drag me away and through the aisles to fulfill her list of varying lengths.

Among other regular workers in the store was a boy who then seemed very old to me, but who in hindsight must have been only about seventeen. He did not attend our school or church and so because I never saw him in any other place, I was comforted by the presumption that he was untouched by the opinion of others or knowledge of my unworthiness. His name was Joey and he was cute and friendly. Very friendly, it occurred to me, for someone much older and so much more, well, world-acceptable than I. He, too, would hug me tightly and tell me, ‘hello’ and some days would even tease me and ask me when I was going to grow up so that we could run away together and get married. And though even at my young age I sensed some desperation in his outpouring of affection, he made me feel special and not so ugly or unwanted as those kids at school. I knew little about him except that my granny said he was an orphan and that the man who owned the store had given him a job and helped him to live. This served to reinforce my belief that the store-owner-man was a compassionate and kind man; a pillar of the local church, his moral compass was sure and steady.

Our routine had been the same since I was five when we had moved into our second house in the new subdivision in the north part of town. Our schedule rarely — if ever — varied from one day to the next, the rhythm of it somehow punctuating the mundanity of it. That was until one Monday morning when I was eight.

I had been known at times, during the school year prior, to hold food in my mouth until after the lunch period was over only to then return to the classroom and spray the contents all over my desk, convulsing convincingly as I did so. I would even go so far as to save the two foods on my tray of most contrasting color until the end of lunch, just before the bell rang so that the effect would be all the more dramatic and disgusting. So convincing was that every day for three weeks mom or dad or aunt or uncle or any other available sucker would come to school to collect me shortly after my post-lunchtime display. I was amazed at how simple it had been and had enjoyed a very good run until one day at the end of week three when mom made an appointment for me to see the local internist rather than my favorite pediatrician who had historically always been on my side and would always give me the benefit of the doubt. Instead, this man was an older doctor who had known our family and most everyone in town since generation one and who had presumably also, over the years, seen and heard it all. In short order with his wisdom, down-home Southern way and one-word diagnosis of Schoolitis he burst my bubble and ruined what had otherwise been a highly effective scheme. My backside was blistered and my Holly Hobby village impounded.

So on that morning when I was eight, I could have forgiven my mom for insisting on quarantining the thermometer to ensure that the consistently high readings it was displaying were not being aided or contrived by a heating pad in my bed or by quick trips to the hot water tap on the bathroom sink. Only after the fourth confirmation that my temperature had exceeded 103 did mom begrudgingly call the pediatrician and quickly haul me off to see him still donning my yellow duck-clad flannel pajamas. Much to mom’s surprise, my doctor had suspected and a Xray had confirmed that I had somehow contracted severe pneumonia. I was put to bed for what he said would be a minimum of three weeks and though I felt physically unwell if not truly awful, the notion of a reprieve from abuse at the hands of my classmates — no matter how brief and regardless of the reason — was the most welcome of news. At least to me.

Mom did not return to work that day and instead spent the afternoon with me gathering prescriptions and making arrangements for my daycare, knowing that she would not be allowed to take the time off work to look after me herself, as back then, this was the norm. She and my dad, therefore, decided that in order to keep me in our home they would enlist the help of my other grandmother, my dad’s mom. Granny L-Belle worked the day shift at the cotton mill as she had for at least as long as my parents had known each other, but unlike my mom’s job, hers was protected by seniority and accrued untaken leave. She took the time off as unpaid vacation and my dad supplemented her income instead so that she could look after me as long as needed, unencumbered and without stress.

For the next few weeks during the day grandmother, L-Belle would stay at our home with me, methodically addicting me to soap operas, game shows, and grilled cheese sandwiches. She was a decent woman, but not a strong one and displayed tendencies which ran counter to her strongly professed faith. She had an unnatural fear of Christ that was nothing akin to a relationship with a benevolent deity. She had, for a time, all but banished my own mother from family lunches when she one Sunday discovered that mom had secretly been sneaking us into the Baptist church rather than taking us to our grandmother’s chosen Church of Christ where we were expected every Wednesday and Sunday, barring death or similar. For me, even then there was no difference between what her church preached and ours proclaimed save perhaps the volume and twang. According to both, I would perish in hell were I to drink, dance, fancy a man outside of wedlock or do anything that remotely resembled enjoyment. And so granny L-Belle’s intransigence on this point struck me as the sign of someone perhaps not burdened with the capacity for rational thought. She allowed the views of her especially conservative brand of Christianity to dictate choices even a person completely devoid of any spiritual alignment would not have made. Like staying with an abusive alcoholic husband because divorce is a sin.

Still, to us, she was superb, even with or perhaps because of her manifest contradictions. Being with her was always a treat, but being with her instead of at school made the eventual four weeks I spent at home amongst the best of my entire childhood.

My mother would rush home during lunch to check on me and bring me treats. My dad would even make an effort to bring me my favorite spicy sausage and biscuit with mustard from the local shake shop, recognizing that it was one of the few foods I could still taste. In the evening, the miniseries Backstairs at the White House was on TV and thought it was far too mature for my young age, mom was so intent on watching it that she had no choice but to allow me to do the same, having made my long-term sick bed on the sofa in the den to keep me and my germs out of the room I shared with my sister. I had never had so much attention, and never had my otherwise strict and patterned existence been so textured and varied.

Over the course of the weeks, I had received many visitors and even more flowers and cards, mostly from people at church I hardly knew but who for some reason felt the need to pray for me and then come tell me about it in person. I even received a giant get well card from my otherwise hostile third-grade class. So one day at the height of my illness when the doorbell rang in the mid-late morning, it had not seemed out of the ordinary. But when my grandmother opened the door to find standing there the store owner man, I was so caught off-guard that my naive rationale could only reason that he was there to see L-Belle, as I knew him in one context only. Yet there he stood in our front room and apparently indeed to visit me as along with him he had brought a fresh ice cream cake on which were emblazoned the words “get well.” He insisted on sitting on the sofa right next to me, squeezing me tight and giving me well wishes despite my raging fever and hideous, chesty cough. He was — like my grandmother — a strict Church of Christ, and so to her mind, it was a divine gesture from a man she knew to be a deacon of his church and staple of our community. To me it felt misplaced, though I could not isolate or identify the emotion within me it stirred; only that it was uncomfortable.

He did not stay long as the conversation waned and from my withdrawn body language I think her perhaps discerned that he had stepped — at least to me — out of one world and into another and without any invitation to have done so. After he departed, my grandmother placed the cake on the kitchen counter and quickly returned to sit with me so as not to miss the start of Wheel of Fortune, which came on every day just before the noon news. As was the routine by now, it was not long after that we heard my mom’s car pulling into the garage as she made her daily trip home for lunch. Shortly thereafter, I heard the kitchen screen door swing open and the sound of mom’s clunky heels on the linoleum kitchen floor, rushing in and talking out loud to us in the next room as she threw together her meal from whatever the contents of the fridge could offer. As she did so that day, she noticed the cake on the countertop where my grandmother had left it and with her mouth half-full of pimento cheese sandwich and a glass of tea in her hand came to join us in the adjacent room, and to inquire as to whom had brought such a nice surprise for me. But when the answer came back from my grandmother, rather than responding with any expression of delight or even approval, she had a change of demeanor which was immediately and decidedly negative.

With her mouth full and tea glass sloshing about and displaying what even an eight-year-old could see was a muted alarm tinged with incredulous-ness, she did not even draw a breath before she began riddling my grandmother with rapid-fire questions about why he had brought it and what he wanted and how long he stayed. And whether she had left me alone with him. My grandmother seemed at first dumbfounded then defensive and though I could sense my mom’s emotions and had myself felt something less than ordinary about the encounter, I did not fully understand. What could make my mother so quickly seemingly horrified about an otherwise apparently benign gesture from such a nice man?

Realizing that she was attacking my grandmother for reasons not clear, mom gathered herself quickly and asked to speak to L-Belle in the next room. When they returned after only a very few minutes, it was as though nothing had happened. The store owner’s visit nor the subsequent reaction was ever mentioned in my presence again. That’s how we did things in our family, in our town, in the 70s South, sometimes to the extent that I would wonder if I had imagined entire episodes of familial discord or neighborly discontent. We never discussed any thought, urge or emotion that could be perceived as being any more controversial than switching from Velveeta to cheddar.

That night after dinner, mom gave me a piece of the cake but did not have any for herself.  Yet even as I ate it she seemed to watch me with a concentrated gaze, as though trying to balance the urge to throw the cake in the garbage with her maternal need to make everything seem okay. But after just one piece mom declared that the cake was not good for my congestion or for my weight, took my plate and told me she would freeze the rest of it until I was better.

The rest of my illness-induced break from reality went quickly and without incident, or at least without any that involved uninvited cake or conspiratorial whisper-shouting. Almost another month passed before I was allowed to return to school, but even then I faked a relapse on the first day back and earned myself another week back at home amidst parental recriminations of, “We sent her back too soon.” So by the time I had fully recovered, it had been almost two months since I had been subjected to the normal routine of school, ridicule, sitter, Piggly Wiggly, home.

When the first full day of normalcy did finally return, it was as though no time had passed at all. It was the first time in my life that I realized everything would go on, with or without me. There was a natural order and there would also be someone else on whom the pretty kids could prey in my absence and the teachers could ignore. It was all the very same. The only slight variance being that WHY-VON seemed to have become even less pleasant toward me during the intervening time apart. I had half-expected at least a modicum of sympathy, but the economic reality of having lost almost two months of income from not having me or my sister in her charge greatly outweighed any inclinations she might have had — however slight — to expend energy on pretense.

So when mom’s car finally appeared in the driveway that day, I was probably more anxious than ever prior to make our way to the Piggly Wiggly, as I was certain that there, at least, I would receive the requisite amount of attention and fawning due to me after such a prolonged absence. But that day when we arrived at the store and stepped inside, the store owner came down and gave me only a slight half-hug and soon sent me on my way with my mother. Perhaps my memory of the past had been more generous than the reality, or my imagination more fertile than the inevitable, but it seemed to me that there was a less assertive enthusiasm in his greeting than had previously been the norm. To me, it mattered little as it was really Joey whom I had looked forward to seeing more, and as we wandered the aisles I expected to see him stocking the shelves or putting price stickers on groceries at every turn. But he was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he was in the back and would come out and sneak up on us as he often times did. Perhaps he was planning to surprise me. But he did not.

Crestfallen, I wandered behind my mom, stalling here and there in the hope he would appear, and even briefly considered making a mess to see who they would call on the tannoy to come and clean it up. Having thought better of such drama, though, and when I still had not seen him by the time we reached the checkout and as my other grandmother was giving my mother her change, I looked up and asked her innocently where Joey had gone. Leaning back against the waist-high wall of the checker stall behind her, resting her back and her legs from what had been a very long day on her feet, she looked at me with her country simplicity and weary, knowing eyes and said — before my mother’s abbreviated gasp could signal her to stop — simply, “He killed himself, honey, right out there in that parking lot. He had problems you did not know about and do not need to,” and as she said this, glanced up to the elevated office of the store owner man.

 

 

 

 

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

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.

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