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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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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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 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.