To Be You

Carson asks questions.  And I answer his questions, even the ones I can’t answer. Frankly, I don’t know what would happen if you ate your stairs. I have bravely taken on his questions, answerable and unanswerable alike: Which one is both of these?  Did Alice in Wonderland go to the bathroom? How do you teach a dog not to fly? And even, How can there be a fish of a chili? A fish of a chili, I puzzle. Yes, a carp-fish, he affirms confidently. Most stunning, perhaps, was the inexplicable How come you always say no to the fun things in life? This one, of course, is demonstrably untrue. If it were true, he wouldn’t be here to complain about it.

I have bravely –or foolishly – tried to answer all these and many more. Sometimes I have gotten it right; sometimes I have been convincing enough to make him think I was getting it right. What would happen if you kicked Jesus? Why you’d get kicked out of Heaven. Easy.

It turns out not so easy; that question had a theological underpinning that not even St. Thomas Aquinas could have predicted.

So when he asked one day, What is it like to be you? I thought, Aha! Here is a question I can surely answer! After all, I am inside me most of the time, except for when I am beside myself. I know exactly what it’s like to be me. And so I told him what it was like to be me, and he was happy, and I was happy, and that was that. Next question, please.

But his childish question wasn’t put to rest quite as easily as that. It kept coming back to me, like the strains of a half-remembered melody. I sensed that there was something profound hiding inside that seemingly simple question, a kernel of wisdom that I needed to find and understand.

But the noise of rushing days drowned out the whispering melody.

One day, quite out of the blue, an elderly man showed up on my doorstep. His casual walking clothes — nondescript tennis shoes, a light sweater to guard against the autumn nip in the air, a favorite fishing hat pulled down low on his forehead – didn’t set him apart from any other retired neighbor out for a stroll.

But the obvious distress peering out from behind the mask of false confidence did. Could I tell him, please, how to find 610 N. Boulder?  He knew that was his address since he had lived there many years, and with a little bit of direction, he was certain he could find his way home.

Eager to help – no, actually, anxious to help — I stepped into the bright autumn sunshine to the sidewalk and began to point in the direction of his street. But it didn’t take me all that long to figure out that no matter how careful the directions I gave him, no matter how carefully I explained them, no matter what, he wasn’t going to make it home on his own.

Assuming an air of brisk cheerfulness, I loaded him up in my van and drove him home. He was apologetic, ashamed of himself for having done anything so foolish as to have gotten lost in his own neighborhood. “We all get lost,” I reassured him, cheerfully lying about how I get lost all the time, about the time I tried to find Midland after roaming the rainy outskirts of Austin for far too long and nearly ended up in Delaware instead. Delivered into the capable hands and sadly unsympathetic supervision of his wife, he was soon gone from my view, and as I supposed, from my life. For me, that should have been the end of that. There but for the grace of God, thought I.

But as the whispering autumn breeze turned to chill winter wind, the haunting melody grew louder and lovelier, What’s it like, what’s it like to be you?

Grocery stores have always fascinated me. I love to watch all the people in their various colors and kinds, ages and affects, sizes and senses, under the bright fluorescent lights. Who can concentrate on the latest prices of apples to zucchini when there are so many intriguing folk to secretly study?

I saw that polo shirt coming before I saw the man in it. So large, so turquoise!

And the pink shoes that are Pepto-Bismol Meets the Exorcist: I want them! Surely they shine in the dark!

I remember in the Sixties when a man in a pony tail was highly suspect. Now I admire them. . . the pony tails, that is.

This question is a gen-u-wine question, an honest-to-goodness question, a for reals question, a something that I truly, with all my heart, don’t understand question: why do women wear jeans that are more holes than jeans?

Did that woman over there really mean to wear such short pants with such spiky heels? Really?

And if that man is buying so many frozen dinners, does that mean he lives alone?

That cheerful fellow over there obviously doesn’t know he’s in the grocery store on the day before Thanksgiving, or he wouldn’t be so cheerful. Maybe he’s been nipping the cooking sherry.

Now let’s talk about the grandmothers. That one over there has been dancing on graves all afternoon; her arthritis must have flared up last night. But the cheerful one in the faded jeans and the has-been tee-shirt has been baling hay, not only this afternoon, but most of her life, and furthermore, she’s good at baling hay. In fact, if I had hay to bale, I’d want her to be the one baling it. Doing a brief, informal survey, I’d say the rest of the grocery store grandmothers are card-carrying members of the Hush Puppy Community, which community requires its members to wear high waters with their Hush Puppies. White socks, too.

Other old folks seriously engross my attention. The grandmother who, patiently living her life, has become weary—does she mind her stoop, does she notice that she no longer strides but measures her journey in careful paces, does she care? Does she wear those sturdy brown shoes because they’re lovely and chic. . . or because they’re too comfortable to pass up? Does vanity pass with the passage of time?

And the man who started walking by her side so many years ago and walks there still today—when he looks at her, does he see his young bride, lovely and lean and lithe, supple and strong, as she once surely was?  When he looks in the mirror, is the man looking back straight and tall, youthful and strong, or must he resign himself to the inevitable changes that time has wrought? Does vanity pass with the passage of time?

And so I hear Carson’s question gently resonate: What’s it like, what’s it like to be you? As the chorus murmurs restlessly in the chamber halls of my mind, gentle crescendos swell softly, now piano, now forte. And so the strains of the melody become clearer, and so I begin to understand the kernel of wisdom lying dormant in the seemingly simple questions, in the man who stumbled onto my porch and into my life, in the folk I secretly study under the bright fluorescent lights.

I can no longer fly past others in the whirlwind of my youthful busyness. I must see them. I must know them. I must hold them in my heart.

I was once that slender and seemingly carefree young girl over there, rushing headlong into the future that I only thought I could predict. The young woman trying on the loveliness of new motherhood, I once danced in her shoes. And so, too, the aged pair ducking their heads against the rain, someday I will measure my journey with careful paces as they do now.

What is it like to be you? Carson’s childish question began as a haunting melody, but it has become a chorus of compassion that I hear with new ears. May I also behold the world with new eyes because of it.

Dear Loved Ones Near and Far

Santa Claus is stealing relentlessly down Santa Claus Lane, whether we are ready for him or not.  It’s time to drag out the boxes that you stashed under the basement stairs last Christmas and dust off the Annual Traditions.

We all have our favorites.  For instance, at my house, my husband and I always open the season by waging the Annual Christmas Tree Stand War.  From the first year when he assured me that a bucket of sand was all we needed to keep the tree upright, I have not yet won that war.  The tree always leans merrily to one side, dropping ornaments and needles in gay profusion everywhere.

Personally, I don’t prefer that sort of gay profusion.

But I retaliate with the Christmas Morning Soufflé.  I fix it religiously every year even though no one seriously cares to eat it.  It is, after all, a tradition.  I got the recipe at church, so it must be the True Tradition.

My favorite tradition, though, is reading the Annual Brag Letters that lurk inside those gala green and red envelopes the mailman brings.  These are the letters that, Grinch-like, I have always loved to hate.  For one thing, I am morally opposed to any form letter that begins with protestations of love, as in “Dear Loved Ones Near and Far.”

Then one Christmas, after hastily scrawling heartfelt notes on Christmas cards to at least 50 of my closest, most personal friends and cherished family members, I decided to take a second look at the Annual Christmas Letter Tradition.  Perhaps, I decided, there is room in the world for fond regards of the mimeographed variety.  And in a startling moment of self-revelation, I had to admit that not only did I enjoy reading the Brag Letters, secretly, in my heart of hearts. truthfully, I wanted to try my hand at writing one.

There are rules, of course, that you must follow in writing a Brag Letter.  These unwritten rules are part of a venerable tradition. For instance, you must always begin your letter as generically as possible. “Greetings from Our House to Your House” is the perennial favorite, but “Dearest Family and Friends” will do. It rings of sincerity.

Hi Everyone greeted the lucky recipients of my first letter. That seemed to cover all the bases; those not particularly near or dear to me were still included. With a beginning as generic as this, I could give my letter to anyone I could dupe into reading it.

Next, refer nonchalantly to your family vacation. Mention casually that you had time for all the usual boat trips, and then reel off the names of seven or eight lakes. Briefly tell how much fun you had for two weeks on the Big Island with the entire gang, and with modest anticipation, tell about the Caribbean cruise on next year’s agenda. Be humble.

Chuck thinks he is going to Alaska this coming summer. My father has suggested that he might enjoy touring Highway 50 in Nevada instead.

Be sure to tell about the children’s many activities and accomplishments. At this point, it’s okay to go into the full-blown brag mode. All parents do it. Explain that your daughter turned down an appointment to West Point to take the Harvard scholarship. If your son broke his own record when he won the state wrestling championship again this year, here is the place to say so. Lacking these little tidbits, itemize piano lessons, soccer teams, Cub Scout activities, and baton-twirling lessons. Never mind that half the kids in America take piano lessons and play soccer.

John wrestled on the junior high team and earned a spot on the varsity team, which meant he got to wear the fancy knee pads at tournaments. In his first tournament, he got a fine black eye, so we felt the event was a success.

If your family includes very young children who have not yet started piano lessons or joined a soccer team, there might not be much to brag about. That is why Brag Letter writers invented the phrase “mommy’s little helper.” Use it sparingly, though, because everyone knows it’s fraudulent. That phrase has been conspicuously absent from most of the Christmas letters I have sent.

The closest I come to having a helper is Carson, my “tough guy helper.” He is in charge of helping me do anything he thinks I need help with, and most of the time I can undo the damage.

While still in the bragging mode, be sure to refer casually to your own job. State modestly that the enormous branch over which you preside as bank manager had the biggest loan and deposit generation ever. Brag that your piano studio has 400 happy, accomplished student pianists and will have twice that many next year. Add, too, that you work out every morning, playing basketball and lifting weights and that you never break a sweat.  Remember that it doesn’t hurt to liven up the truth a little; people reading the letter will never check your facts.

Chuck is still working for El Paso Natural Gas. He explained to me once that he is an inspector in this life. At least, that is what El Paso pays him to do. I think it means to him that he is better at watching people work rather than actually participating. Maybe that is why he is not mommy’s little helper.

So-called “stay-at-home” dads or moms don’t need to brag about their jobs. Simply mention how busy you are, what with kids, PTA, sitting on various boards and commissions, and volunteering in the community and at church. Busyness implies importance. Complain gently that you are stretched too far.

I have been very busy this year boycotting various companies that don’t see as I do about TV violence and why we should all love and support the Boy Scouts. So far all my boycottees are still in business, but I occasionally send them letters to remind them that I am still ignoring them.

If your family includes teenagers, by all means, say so. You deserve all the sympathy you can get. Commiserate with your readers that your son has gotten his driver’s license and totaled only one car so far. Mention that at least the ceiling in your daughter’s room is clean and that you got to use the phone once yesterday.

John turned 13 this year, a teenager at last. I can tell he’s a teenager because more and more of his conversations begin with, “Oh yeah, I need __________” (fill in dollar amount here). He also rolls his eyes a lot and has developed an aversion to answering intrusive questions like “How was school?”

Last and most important, finish your letter with sober good wishes for a happy Christmas and fond regards for dear ones near and far. And humbly acknowledge that you hope their year has been as good as yours.

While I am composing this letter of Christmas cheer, Andrew is squatting on the dining table dismantling the Christmas centerpiece. He has not learned the fine art of keeping a low profile. Christmas or no Christmas, it’s time to run—later!

Yotta Start Your Own Business

So Chuck comes home with the cheerful news that half the people in the world have yard work I can do for hire, and he’s so taken with the financial possibilities of doing yard work—there’s big money in it, he promises—that he thinks I ought to get after it.  “Yotta start your own business,” he urges, awash in the self-satisfaction that comes from having recently started the booming Lawn Wizard yard care service with the older boys.  Never mind that pulling weeds isn’t my forte.  Never mind that I’m not in the market to start my own business.  Never mind that I am frantically trying to finish a master’s degree by last December.  I fall victim to the unfailing urge that I haven’t been able to squelch since I said “I do” eons ago to prove to him that I can too do it, no matter what it is. And then there’s the compulsion to be there for my children, no matter what, and isn’t this a nifty job for the children to have, but of course they’ll need supervision. Supervision, I said. I even partly believed it.

So off I go, Carson and Daniel in tow, to see one of Chuck’s yard customers with weedy flower beds.  We check out his weed bed in the front of the house. Sure I have a thesis to write, but if the children can do this job now, hey, I’ll sacrifice. Anything for the children, I’ve always said. So that’s how I find myself sitting in the dirt, covered with fire ants and sweat. How important for the children to learn the value of hard work, I assure myself as I frantically brush away thousands of tiny meat-eating ants, how thrilled they’ll be with that paycheck, and how wonderful to be able to  afford their school supplies after all. Five kids can consume a lot of colored pencils and notebook paper in the course of one school year.

Daniel is more than happy to traipse after me in the cool of the early morning—my study time.  Of course, he hasn’t grasped the concept yet. He doesn’t know that these are real weeds. Carson is another story. He is absolutely lame. But he follows along anyhow, promisingly guilt-ridden and remorseful; I have unfounded hopes for him. Daniel’s happy veneer wears off after he has worked for only a brief while: he gets his nose out of joint and explains angrily that he doesn’t like pulling weeds. Does this come as a surprise to me? It does not. No amount of assumed cheerfulness on my part convinces him that he and I are having fun. He doesn’t want to bond with me, and he senses, with the unerring sensitivity of a duped 13-year old that any enthusiasm on my part is fraudulent. Dispensing with nepotism, I fire him.  “Beat it,” I say. He huffs off, leaving behind him a cloud of disgust and Carson for me to supervise.

Carson is now anxious to please, acutely aware that he is next in line to be fired.  We work for a while, rehearsing his 12-times tables to ensure that fourth grade math will spring no unpleasant surprises on him. However, the ants finally get the best of us, and Carson and I stuff weeds into trash sacks, scrape up the traces of dirt from the sidewalk with our hands—our business hasn’t acquired a broom yet—and then head home with promises to each other to return in the evening. We’re committed to this beautification project, though I am dubious about the extent of Carson’s commitment. He knows that this evening is a long time away, and I know it, too. I am not fooled by his willingness to return. Anything could happen between now and then, and knowing Carson as I do, I suspect that he is banking on a fortuitous calamity to strike. With Carson, hope springs eternal.

In the evening, Andrew decides to join the team. No, he wasn’t invited; no, I’m not that stupid, which, of course, is a debatable assertion. Andrew is the original pain. He has to have work gloves. He fusses loud enough, long enough, that I finally give up and surrender mine to him. But though I have to give him my gloves, I don’t have to do it gracefully. “Andrew, you are the original pain,” I tell him. “Get off my back,” he retorts.  Andrew is only five, and he has learned this new metaphor just today. He also demonstrates to me how it would look if he were on my back, not metaphorically but literally. I shake him off, along with the stray ants that didn’t have the good graces to succumb to my ant poison, and I continue clawing at the weeds.

Some of the weeds in this snake pit of a flower bed aren’t grass, but they aren’t ground cover, either. I wonder briefly what they might be, and I continue my hacking and pulling. Carson watches with interest, busily slurping on the sports drink he brought for break time, which begins as soon as we get there and lasts until he bails out; why does he think he needs work gloves anyhow? I consider persuading him to give me his, but surely he would take this as permission to give up the pretense that he is somehow contributing to the project at hand.

The weeds’ owner appears next to me on the sidewalk  ̶ sheepish, do I detect?  ̶ and says he has decided he wants to use the weed-eater and Round-up after all. I’m not sure of this process, linking it in my mind to weapons of mass destruction, so I talk confidently of discussing it with Chuck and promise to get back with him. Glad to be relieved of my self-imposed weed-pulling obligations, I pile the tools in the car and evilly consider the possibility of Carson and Andrew getting lost as they walk home. They don’t suspect a thing, or they might not set off so trustingly. I beat them home.

Sitting on the couch tonight, I’m scratching the ant bites and trying to sedate myself with Court TV, which has nothing soporific to offer except Jack Kevorkian’s lawyer whose unfailing arrogance infuriates me and keeps me awake. I resort to watching Rockford Files reruns, which I consider a great alternative because I can admire James Garner’s former hairline and his ingenuous brown eyes, and that’s when I figure it all out.  It’s not ant bites. It’s poison ivy.

Cooking and Other Sad Facts of Life

It was just moments after I had incinerated my last croissant. By the time Chuck strolled through the door, much of the smoke had dispersed, and I, relying on my usual unfounded optimism, thought that perhaps the bluish layer clinging to the kitchen ceiling wouldn’t alarm his chronically overwrought olfactory senses. “You’ve been cooking again!” he crowed delightedly. “And were you reading a book or playing the piano?” This never would have happened, I grumbled to myself, had I been out on the driveway scraping up bird droppings.

Cooking is not all it is cracked up to be. I know that because I have cooked many times.  In fact, for a long time, it was part of my job description, and I took it most seriously, devising weekly menus and elaborate shopping lists and assembling a dog-eared recipe file. I even made homemade bread; I remember distinctly the day that I realized that I could also buy bread, already sliced even, when pressed for time. That was a Revelation.

Another revelation came when I discovered boxes. You can cook things that come in a box. I mean stuff like Hamburger Helper. If you keep your eyes closed and add enough pepper, Tabasco sauce, raisins, whatever, it’s even good; I am certain that is why God gave us lemon pepper. I know for a fact that I am not the only who uses boxes, either. I once polled the good ladies at church to see how many of them cooked things out of boxes.  My research was admittedly informal, but these god-fearing women acknowledged publicly and without shame that they used convenience foods. My own mother-in-law, a woman renowned for being able to create fine dining out of an empty kitchen and two onions, cheerfully sanctioned food from a box. Furthermore, Gabe was the cook’s helper when he was on staff at Boy Scout camp, and when he came home, he informed me that all foods, including pancakes, come in boxes.  If the Boy Scouts can do it, I say, so can I.

The boys confided in me once that they don’t mind when I cook things out of a box, and they think if Dad doesn’t like it, then he should do the cooking.  As much as I enjoyed the self-righteous surge of vindication I felt when I heard this, I’m convinced they ought to rethink it.  After all, they don’t like beans and brown rice all that much.  No matter how enthusiastically Dad endorses them, eating the same thing every night is an annoyance.  They also confided that they really don’t prefer oatmeal, which fact I had already assumed. Of course, maybe I need to work on my presentation.  I suppose it doesn’t help when I blop a bowl of it in front of them and say, “Here’s a lump of cold, gluey oatmeal for you.” Perhaps a sprig of parsley would help or a dollop of sour cream. Recipes are always calling for sprigs of parsley or dollops of sour cream. Unfortunately for the rest of us, Chuck once became enamored with oatmeal when he heard it touted as a preferred food for body builders, and when he is on a food crusade, it is a moral imperative for the rest of us to enthusiastically eat what he eats.  I am not lying about the beans and brown rice.

In self-defense, I have begun the arduous task of Teaching the Boys to Cook.  This is part of the more long-range Ensuring That My Future Daughters-in-Law Love Me objective. Gabe, more mechanically than domestically inclined, has set fire to the stove only once, and though I would never have thought to add cooking oil to frying bacon, still his culinary efforts have their charm.  Never mind that this charm is solely that someone else cooked it; I am a good sport when it serves my purpose.

Carson is another matter; I’ve got a long way to go teaching him to cook.  When he agreed to barbeque hamburgers rather than repeat the ham-and-cheese tacos episode, I started the cooking lesson by telling him that he could make his hamburgers out of the enormous lump of yesterday’s grind hibernating greasily on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. “Is it already browned?” he asked. I was not sure what to do with his mysterious question, because, after all, I was certain that we meant to be discussing making hamburgers. I stared in silence. “You mean you make hamburgers from raw meat? Really?” My stunned silence intensified. “Du-u-u-de!” he chortled in happy epiphany.

Chuck thinks I am attempting to weasel out of something by teaching the boys to cook, shirk my duties and all that. I think he should reconsider. In fact, it might serve him well to gracefully relinquish his stranglehold on my apron strings as I become less and less inclined to cater to his culinary whims. The truth is that his joie de vivre vaporizes when it comes to his food. For instance, once he pestered me to fix him something to eat—just as I was trying to leave for my evening constitutional, I might add—but refused to give me a straight answer about what he wanted. If I am going to do him a favor, I don’t want to have to coax him—beg him, in fact—to tell me what favor to do. So I had to wing it, and I gave it an honest effort. First I browned a little bit of the hamburger I had sitting out, sautéed half a banana with it and seasoned it tenderly with lemon pepper. Then I placed it lovingly in a hoagie roll, added a touch of gourmet mustard and crowned it with a fresh leaf of lettuce, congratulating myself for not using the ubiquitous and nutrition-empty iceberg variety. I haven’t spent years in the kitchen for nothing. Chuck needs to appreciate this sad fact.

Or learn to cook.

The Land of Lost Content

 

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, lived a mother and a father and five rambunctious sons who were each other’s best friends, who sometimes knocked holes in the walls but whose wise young mother knew to look the other way when they did because holes in the wall can be covered up with pictures, but little boys don’t stay little for long and before you know it, they’re packing their backpacks and loading up their skateboards and Camaros and heading off for college and marriage and fatherhood and mistakes of their own and there you are in the middle of your empty nest wishing the fledglings would fly back home and mess up their bedrooms just one more time.

At least, that’s what happened to me. Maybe it happened to you, too. Maybe it’s happening right now.

And then I read a favorite poet who saw hills off in the distance; what are those blue remembered hills, he asked. I remembered those same blue, distant hills. And when he answered that those hills are the land of lost content, I knew he meant long ago happiness, because I once lived in that same land; I once walked those same happy highways, I and my five sons.

What you see below are my recollections of those happy highways where I went with my longsuffering husband, Chuck, a.k.a El Jefe or Alpha Wolf, and our five little beta wolves: John, Gabe, Daniel, Carson, and Andy. Some stories are happy, some are sad, some are funny, some are just life at its realest. Most are true – I only lie a little bit. As Grandma used to say, it never hurts to embroider the truth. (Of course, we don’t know what Grandma’s final disposition has been.)

By the way, I’ve also tossed in my observations on a few other perplexities that I have observed along the way. I hope you enjoy those, too. And I hope you feel the urge to comment on what you read here. I’d love to get to know you as you get to know me.

A Perplexity: Death of an American Prince

At the time of John Kennedy Jr.’s untimely death in 1999, we were deluged with sycophantic hyperbole from the media and maudlin keening from the public. His death was a very sad thing. As the Kennedy family grieved privately and the community at large enjoyed its more public outpouring, I felt especially bad for Caroline, the sole survivor of her immediate family. I felt the same compassion for my own father, and for the same reason.

But beyond that, it occurred – and occurs – to me that significance of the death of this public figure went beyond the death of one man. It was representative of a troubling phenomenon pervasive in American culture that, having taken root, is popping up like those weird mushrooms that show up in your front lawn and start taking over. This phenomenon shows up on the red carpet at the Emmys and Oscars, at big-time sporting events, at any occasion populated by so-called public personalities, more familiarly called celebs by those in the know. I use his life and death as a symbol of this troubling phenomenon. Follow me.

As I see it, JFK Jr. was rich, handsome, and undoubtedly a fine fellow. After all, he did take the subway. And his beguiling salute in the Christopher Robin coat at his own father’s funeral procession was both memorable and heart wrenching. But he wasn’t a national treasure. He didn’t do anything notable, with the possible exception of failing the bar twice. Even George, his magazine, was failing, although I question the value of a magazine that was touted as surfing between CNN and MTV, objecting as I do to the dumbing down of Important Issues. There was talk of the legacy he left the nation. What legacy? According to my lexicon, a legacy is the long-lasting effect of an event or person. I don’t see any long-lasting effect coming from his short life. So he left us a failed magazine, a sad picture of a little boy saluting his father’s casket, and the memory of a handsome rich guy who loved his mother and wasn’t affected by his wealth or fame. Not much.

Some mourners claimed that we felt his loss so keenly because we, as a nation, watched him grow up. At the same time, we also heard much by way of congratulations that Jackie Onassis successfully shielded her children from public notice as they grew up. Which was it? Either we watched him grow up, or we didn’t because Jackie wouldn’t let us. It can’t go both ways. And if Jackie was successful in keeping her family’s private life private, as I believe she was, we didn’t watch John Jr. grow up, we didn’t have collective fond memories of his childhood and youth, and there was little reason to exhibit paroxysms of public grief.

Some media experts in the JFK Jr. cult mourned over what might have been. What promise went unfulfilled, they wondered; what legacy might he have left us? JFK Jr. was 38 years old. A lot of men, by that age, have at least started working on their legacy. JFK Jr.’s own father was a senator and well on his way to becoming the youngest U.S. president. Other men have started raising happy families, have successful careers, have accomplishments to point to with pride.  Interesting that JFK Jr.’s legacy was still a great big question mark.

We also heard much of Camelot; John Jr. was an American prince, we were told. A what? Perhaps I dozed off somewhere along the line, but I thought we live in a republic. In fact, I thought the fact that we don’t have a monarchy was sort of a point of pride for Americans. Isn’t that why we fought the Revolutionary War a little while ago? We don’t have princes around here; some of us don’t necessarily want them, either. This is America. JFK Jr. was not a prince. He was the son of a former president, and there’s a big difference.

Many claimed their right to mourn by intimately referring to JFK Jr. as John-John, which nickname was a media invention never adopted by the family. I suspect this public mourning was at least kind of fun for those who indulged in it. But it was misguided. For one thing, it was an intrusion into what should have been the private mourning of a family who had lost a loved one. It trivialized the very real grief of Kennedy’s family and friends. In fact, it trivialized grief in general, making it just a showy pretension of intimacy with the rich and powerful. And that is the key to this troublesome phenomenon that Kennedy’s death epitomizes.

The self-indulgent public keening that was rampant at the time of his death was symptomatic of a larger underlying problem. JFK Jr. was a private citizen who led a relatively private life and who left behind no legacy. He did not touch the lives of multitudes in any public way. He was, however, rich, handsome, and a member of a very powerful family. And so we adored him.

It is this national obsession with wealth and celebrity that is the problem. We esteemed a man above all others because of the wealth he possessed, and the name that he bore, and the power that he wielded, and it was wrong. It still is.