Nov 14 2016

Explaining the Loss

She was hunched over her computer, sitting cross-legged on the floor when I pushed open the heavy door to Short-pants‘ bedroom. Fully dressed, ready for school, her purse already draped over her shoulder as though she might need to jump up and sprint out the door at a moment’s notice, her head moved back and forth as she read from her screen.

“He’s winning,” she said, “how can he be ahead?”

De-facto sat on her bed, his hand on her shoulder. I crouched behind her and wrapped my arms around her so I could whisper the news I’d come to tell her.

“It looks like he’s going to win.”

The reality of that – the thing we all thought was impossible – hung in the air over us. It was 6:45 am, the CNN commentators – we’d been up all night with them – were scrutinizing the counties of Michigan and Wisconsin, and though the race had not yet been called in Mr. Trump’s favor, the data did not look good.broken_ideas

Short-pants bent over her screen, her shoulders heaving, letting out her signature moan, a forlorn wail of grief and disappointment.

“But, what about women’s rights? And minorities? The environment? The Supreme Court?”

I didn’t have an answer. I myself was numb with disbelief at how the red and blue graph lines had criss-crossed and grown in opposite directions, a possibility that Nate Silver never ruled out but that I hoped was an impossibility. Even over the weekend, when the polls had tightened, I just couldn’t believe that it could happen. Not in my America. We wouldn’t elect an impulsive, vulgar bully to the highest office in the land, would we?

Absent any authentic words to re-assure her, I simply rubbed her back and kissed the crown of her head.

She began to sob.

When I pushed myself up from the floor and pattered across the hall into Buddy-roo‘s room, it was still dark, just a hint of dawn’s early light squeezing through the shutters of her window. She lay motionless in bed; I crawled in to spoon behind her.

“What happened?” she mumbled, half asleep.

I didn’t answer right away, I wanted to take in the peace of the morning cuddle for an extra beat before spoiling her day.

“Hillary?” she said.

“I’m afraid Trump has pulled ahead, and will probably be the president.”

She’s a lazy riser, Buddy-roo. It takes several nudges, hugs, shoulder rubs and calls-up-the-stairway to be sure she gets out of bed every morning. This time, though, she jerked around and threw off her comforter.

“You’re joking, right?”

I shook my head to answer. She turned back and buried her head in her pillow.

~ ~ ~

The girls took an active interest in the election over the course of the summer. It was hard not to, the media circus that was our election spilled over into Europe. Plus we spent nearly a month in the United States in August, news about the Clinton-Trump red_white_stripedrace was inescapable. These last weeks I was fairly addicted to my various news feeds; by osmosis they had to pick it up on their radar.

De-facto and I lean left, and as long as we’ve known each other (20 years now) we’ve favored the same candidates. Still, we try our best to inform our daughters about politics without indoctrinating them. I know it’s impossible for any parent to hide their bias, and perhaps it is a parental right to pass on political values. But I’ve felt it was important to try to set an example: to speak respectfully, not to be vulgar, dismissive or to demonize the other party’s candidate. That was much harder to do this time around, I’m sure I couldn’t mask my truest fears about Mr. Trump’s character, which from where I sit, was hard to paint in any kind of neutral light. Still, days before the election when Buddy-roo stated emphatically that she hated Trump, I corrected her. She could dislike his ideas but hating him, personally, was not the answer. I suspect my attempt wasn’t very authentic, it was hard to hide my disgust given how he insulted women, minorities, veterans, and the disabled. His cavalier discourse brought out the worst in all of us – on both sides of the ballot.

~ ~ ~

I really want to be a good loser, to take the long view. I want to respect the democratic process. I’ve been reading about the pendulum swings of politics, how it’s going to be okay. (Or maybe it’s not all that okay.) I’ve even been willing to explore how Trump could be a good president after all. I’ve tried to take solace from conciliatory posts asking for respect between sides. Though it’s hard to imagine this when a scan of the nation’s Facebook feeds shows how polarized we are. I’m incensed by the images of racists emboldened by Trump’s election. And just as angry when anti-Trump protestors have turned violent, too.

The meme that tires me out the most is the one about being sore losers. It’s so much more than that. It’s fear. If Romney had beaten Obama four years ago, I’d have been discouraged and concerned, but I wouldn’t have been frightened. I was angry about many of the actions of the Bush administration, but I wasn’t afraid of him. I am scared of what will happen to the rule of law in our country with Mr. Trump as president. I can’t even fathom what this administration will be like to anyone who disagrees with him.

To be blunt, I’m lost. I’ve written before about how I like being other, living between cultures, understanding the codes but at the same time, escaping them. What I know, now, is that I no longer understand the codes of my home country. I don’t know how to explain to my daughters, who still identify as ask_yourselfAmerican despite never living there, when they ask what this means to their future. Even if they never set foot in the states again, they worry about the ripple effect, around the world, of a Trump presidency.

My daughters are worried and afraid. I am worried and afraid. And when they ask me how a man like that could be president of the United States, I have no answer.

How to explain that the party I identify with, a party that I truly believed was trying to do good things for our country and for the world, misunderstood or ignored the suffering and disgruntlement of the large portion of Americans who voted for Trump, or didn’t vote at all? How discouraging that so many people felt so abandoned and ignored that Trump was the candidate they chose. For their sake, I hope they haven’t been conned. Women, minorities, gays, lesbians, non-Christians – and our environment – are all going to pay the price for this decision. If rural, red America ends up getting shafted by Mr. Trump, too, if his promises to drain the swamp of elite lobbyists and cronies turns out to be campaign-speak and nothing more, we will have given up all our progress for absolutely nothing. But maybe that’s what it will take – being in the same boat of suffering and misery – to get America to work together again.


Jul 18 2016

The Joyride

I sliced peaches into a bowl of vanilla ice-cream while Buddy-roo scrolled through the options in my computer’s movie folder. It had been an ideal summer day at the country house: bike rides down the lane with Winston running joyously beside us, a little bit of yard work, trimming grapes and pulling ivy off the walls of the stone house, De-facto making progress on a construction project in the bergerie. A late afternoon trip to the lake with sailing and swimming, followed by an apéro on the back terrace, then burgers and chicken from the grill with a chilled pale rosé. As soon as the sun set – and it sets late at this time of the year – we’d planned to gather around my computer to watch a movie. Buddy-roo, our media-kid, had been begging for one all day, and was sustained through the outdoorsy activity only by the promise of a movie after sunset. It was between Guardians of the Galaxy and Malificent, in her mind. I was lobbying for The Way Way Back, when I heard De-facto shouting from outside. I ran out to see him doubled over, just down the road. He motioned to me, urgently.

“Winston’s dead.” His voice strained. “A car. He ran into the road. Wouldn’t come when I called.” His chest was heaving, his face anguished. I held his hands; they were shaking.
black_heart
“I heard the sound. When he was hit. It was awful.”

“But where is he?” I needed to see Winston, lifeless, to believe it.

That was the worst – or the weirdest – part. De-facto couldn’t find the dog. They’d been at the edge of a track road that runs into a main road behind our house, a road on which cars speed by. Winston can be cheeky, but he usually minds us when call him to head back home. This time he’d dashed into the road and stood there, his head was probably extended upwards sniffing at something in the air. De-facto heard the car coming and yelled to Winston to get out of the road. Though he didn’t see it happen – the tall field grass was in the way – De-facto heard clearly the sound of car meeting dog. He’d cried out,”Nooooo!” but we did didn’t hear him, crowded around our kitchen island contemplating movie titles, 300 meters away.

De-facto ran to the road, expecting to find the mangled body of our beloved dog. There was nothing there. No evidence of an accident. No broken plastic pieces from a car. No blood, no hair. No dog. He looked in the ditches, but no sign of Winston. That’s when he ran back to the house, when he called me to come outside.

By now the rest of the family joined us. Buddy-roo saw De-facto holding my hand, his head bowed, and noticed the absence of our dog and collapsed in the road. Short-pants and my mother-in-love hugged each other, shocked at the news.

“We’ve got to find him.” De-facto’s anguish commanded us to the task. He started barking orders, which we all accepted dutifully. He and Buddy-roo drove off in the direction that the car had been going, to see if they could find Winston or its driver. I ran down to the spot in the road where the accident occurred to search again for his body.

I couldn’t piece it together, everything went into a spin. He couldn’t be gone. I pictured Winston’s empty basket, the bed he sleeps and his food and water bowls; how we’d look at them dog_pulls_metomorrow, empty, and how we’d grieve. We haven’t had him in our lives even two years. It took half of that time for him to get to know us, to let go whatever fear he carried with him from his life prior to us bringing him home from the rescue center. For more than a year, he was even standoffish, a dog that only loved us loving him. It was until very recently that I had the feeling he had actually started to love us back.

We’d become a family with a dog. And now – way too soon – our dog was gone.

There was nothing on either shoulder of the road. I scoured the ditches for a red-haired body with its blue harness. Maybe the impact had thrown him away from the road into the thick of bushes and trees. I was about to head home and change out of my sundress and flip-flops into long pants and boots in order to search in the weeds and briars beyond the ditches, when I saw De-facto, in our car, driving toward me.

“He’s alive!” He stopped the car. “Get in!”

We rushed back to the village – at least a 1.5 km distance – where I saw Buddy-roo standing with a young couple, staring at the front of their car. De-facto pulled in beside them; I didn’t wait for the car to stop before jumping out. There was Winston. Neatly wedged into the front grill of the car, his paws hanging out comfortably, his head moving from side-to-side. He panted and blinked, like nothing was the matter. He did not bark. He did not whimper. He looked only slightly relieved to see us after his little joyride.

The couple in the car had already called the pompiers, and though De-facto wanted to take the bumper apart and free Winston immediately, we persuaded him to wait. There was no blood, and Winston did not appear to be in pain, but who knew what kind of internal injuries he might have suffered. They would have tools to extract him carefully from the grill of the car and avoid further injury.
Winston_joyride
It was probably only 15 or 20 minutes, but if felt like hours before the firemen arrived. They probably did exactly what De-facto wanted to do, dismantled the bumper and stretched open the grill where Winston had been squeezed in. Winston stepped out, like slipping out of a train berth, and even stood up on the sidewalk for several moments before collapsing. There was not one cut on him. No external marks or bruises. All bones appeared to be straight. No blood, anywhere.

I’m still not sure why the driver of the car didn’t pull over sooner, why he drove past several turn-offs and driveways and continued all the way to the village. Winston must have had the ride of his life, a full front bumper view of a French country road for nearly 2 km.

The pompiers helped us locate a veterinarian, who, even at 10:00 on a Saturday night, opened his office to attend to Winston. After a thorough physical examination and a series of X-rays, Winston appears to have suffered only 2 cracked ribs and some mild internal swelling. He’s on anti-inflammation medicine now. He’s moving a bit slower, as you’d expect, but he walks, and even trots a little. He still manages to be underfoot, sitting in exactly the spot you want to stand, in front of the very cupboard you need to access, or just at the base of the refrigerator at the moment you want to open it. Not only is he alive, he’s his old self.

If things come in threes, then I’ve used up two of the three miracles I’m allotted in this life. A dozen years ago we almost lost Short-pants and even the doctors called her recovery a miracle. Searching the ditches for Winston’s body, I was transported back to those brutal days when we didn’t know if Short-pants would make it or not, standing on the threshold of grief, wondering if we’d have to enter its dark room. The pain of almost losing our dog reminds me of the pain of almost losing our child, which puts me in touch with the pain of so many people this year who did lose someone they loved: in Paris, Istanbul, San Bernadino, Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge, just last week in Nice, and dozens of other places that don’t get enough media attention but merit our mindfulness as well. There’s so much loss in the world, it’s hard to hold on to hope.
Winston_on_white
Short-pants felt terrible because, as she put it, she loves Winston the least in the family. It was a wake-up call to her, thinking he might be gone, to appreciate him more. Near-misses like this can be gifts, it’s true, to remind us to appreciate the present and the people – and animals – who are here for us to love right now, in this moment. We don’t know when they will be swept away from us. (Even if it’s if only for a few moments, in the grill of a stranger’s car.) Seizing the joy of the day is how we avoid regrets.

Yesterday Buddy-roo and I took Winston back to the vet for a controle to check that everything is okay. He’s been vomiting repeatedly and the vet took another X-ray to look at his internal organs. There’s some additional inflammation in his stomach and esophagus that’s causing it, and we hope the medicine will kick in soon and he’ll start eating normally again.

While he was getting his X-ray, Buddy-roo and I sat together in the waiting room, running through the events – and the rollercoaster of emotions – of the previous 24 hours. We keep going through it in our heads, again and again, what happened, what could have happened, what didn’t happen. We’ve all been shaking our heads, doing a dance between disbelief and relief. I’m exhausted from the rapid cycle through so many emotions in such a short span of time.

Buddy-roo reached over, took my hand and caressed it.

“Mama,” she said, her voice pitched perfectly between laughing and crying, “tonight, can we just watch a movie, rather than living it?”


Jun 23 2016

Watching Out

The air was hot and thick, moist, confronting me as I stepped out of the airplane. I marched up the jet-way, headlong into smells I’d never smelled before but recognized right away. Smells raw and pungent, like the dank smell of dirt, the scent of people who eat and wash differently, the smell of untamed industry and much less regulated pollution. The smell of a city. Not just any city, a city in Africa. mean_eye_on_you

“Did they scare you with stories about Nigeria?” one of the participants of my workshop asked.

They had. I’d been warned. Nigeria is not a place you go lightly and nobody would have criticized me for refusing the assignment. The kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram was in the north – a good distance from Lagos in the south where I was going – yet a very troubling occurrence, one that remains unsettled. Nigeria is well known for its corruption, but also its violence and crime. This was not a place to wander about with naive curiosity. You have to watch out.

Still, I had a spring in my step. Traveling to new places is always an adventure, even if you have to exercise an extra dose of caution. Or maybe because of that.

~ ~ ~

My work is changing. I’ve always traveled to do it, since I started running workshops two decades ago. Originally it was in the domain of marketing and business, later with academics and scientists – still a primary customer. In the last year, though, I’ve been working to introduce our methodology to the sector of economic development. As a result, I’ve been traveling to countries in Africa: South Africa, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria. Or to Asia, last week I ran a workshop in Thailand. And there’s a project in the works for Mexican assignment next fall.

I’ve been dreaming of doing this kind of work and now I’m starting up a new venture to realize it. I have the enthusiastic support of the colleagues, but at the moment the lion’s share of the work falls on me: strategy, marketing, selling, managing projects and delivering programs. It’s all terribly interesting, satisfying, and potentially very important work. But it does result in way too much to do in any given day.

As the work piles up in front of me, sometimes so high that I can’t see over it, I have to sharpen my peripheral vision to keep an eye on my daughters. They are becoming more and more self-sufficient in practical ways: walking themselves to school, attending (mostly) to their own homework assignments, managing their wardrobes, making decisions about activities teenagersand friends. It’s easy to think they’re over the hump, on their way to adulthood. They might be on their way, but they’re not there yet. They have teenage brains. They may appear to be adults. But they are imposters.

They have become, Short-pants and Buddy-roo, suffering teenagers. Suffering is too strong a word. They are both too lucky to suffer. Lucky to have a safe home, to be consistently loved. Lucky to go to school and to imagine a wide range of professional choices in their future. Lucky to have opportunities to travel, to receive their most desired gifts every Christmas and birthday. Lucky to have their own iPads and smart phones. Still, they suffer the things that teenage girls must unfortunately endure, passing through this disconcerting phase, painful and poignant, dabbling in the awkward art of self discovery while navigating the perilous social minefields of adolescence. These are the things that cause their very vocal, or sometimes very quiet, suffering. These are the things to watch out for.

I always imagined that it would get easier as they got older. Of course there’d be some teenage rebellion – the passage of separation – which we’d have to take in stride. But in general, they’d need me less, right? It turns out it’s not at all easier, and they don’t need less from me. It’s not as physically demanding to have a 12 and a 14 year-old as it was to have two toddlers two years apart, but it’s mentally taxing. The crisis of the day – and often there’s more than one – requires a thoughtful response, one that is empathetic but not over-indulgent, one that soothes them as the same time prods them towards taking responsibility for their thoughts, actions and feelings. You cannot switch to auto-pilot parenting when with adolescent girls. Every thing matters. Every word matters. You have to pay attention. Especially if you’re miles from home.

~ ~ ~

I lived in Hong Kong for almost a year, more than 20 years ago. It wasn’t the best year of my life. The job that I’d come for wasn’t the one I found when I arrived. The man who was my partner, proved not to be. My adventurer-self pretended it was fine, tried to make the best of it. But inside I was spiraling down, cursing my choices. What saved me? My creativity training. Tired of the feeling stuck at a dead-end, I gave myself an assignment. I opened a notebook and wrote without stopping – a stream-of-consciousness brain-dump of words – allowing myself the fantasy of what would be the ideal way of life if things weren’t in the rut they were in. I wrote eight pages.you_are_here

Fifteen years later, I found that notebook, packed away in a box of my things that’d been stored in my mother’s basement. I was stunned to read what I’d written; the description of what I’d hoped my life would be like was almost exactly what it had become. Living in a European city, traveling, working with creativity, with a network of international colleagues with whom there’s respect and rapport. It only fell short in that my travels weren’t quite as exotic as I’d fantasized. But that was six years ago. Look where I get to go, now.

It’s not that those pages became a blueprint, a strategic path I deliberately followed. I wrote them, put them away and didn’t look at them again until years later. Some might say I’d released an intention for an ideal future and the choices I made, subsequently, reflected the vision I’d scribbled down. If so, they were choices made at a subconscious level. In retrospect my career path may look coherent, but it was haphazard in the making.

One thing that was noticeably absent from those prophetic pages: children. I hadn’t factored them in. It wasn’t that I didn’t want any, they just weren’t in the picture. I didn’t have a vision for what it would be like to have kids, let alone how’d it all fit in with the life I dreamed of for myself. It still surprises me. I look at them, all long and lanky, and I think, how on earth did that happen?

~ ~ ~

It’s easy to see the cracks in my parenting. For everything I’ve done well, there’s something I could have done better. A bit stricter on this. Maybe more indulgent on that. More consistent across the board. More present. More plugged-in. I can already bullet-point the earful of grief their therapists will hear from them. I know I just have to ride it out, until they’re in their forties, which is about the time I think most people forgive their parents for not being perfect.

They hate, most of all, when I go away on a trip. Short-pants marches around chanting, “No se puede ir,” when she sees me preparing my suitcase. Buddy-roo hurls herself theatrically on to the couch. “Why must you go away? Why can’t you work like normal parents?” exclamation

But I love it when I go away. I love getting up in the dark for a 5:45 am taxi. I love airports. I love walking down the jetway, the long tunnel to somewhere else. I love the outbound journey, infused with anticipation. I like the homeward trip, too, with its promise of the comfort of my own pillow and the reunion with my family. I count on the fact that even if they’re mad that I’ve left, they’ve forgiven me by the time I get home.

I know there are things I miss – maybe important things – working as I do, being away for a week or two at a time. And even when I’m home: I burrow into my computer screen, or prattle away on back-to-back conference calls that kick off just as the girls get home from school. I tell myself it means I’m not helicoptering around them, but rather, watching out for them from afar, out of their hair, leaving them to learn to sort things out on their own. Not all things, but some things. I guess we’ll only know if it’s enough guidance when we see how they survive these treacherous teenage years. But that’s why the work I do, and the travel it brings, is so important to me. It might be the key to how I survive their teenage years, too.