The Other End of Sunset

Monday, December 25, 2006

Sometimes the best thing...

Sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing.

I am sitting on a flight, on Chrismas Eve. It's packed. Insane - who wants to go to Eastern Washington, arriving after 9pm the night before Christmas? Well, other than me, of course.

I am sitting behind the married couple with the husband who (while boarding) threatened to break another guy's nose. The wife was sobbing - full-on sobbing, with running mascara and all - because it looked like they'd have to sit one row apart. I'm with her on feeling bad, it sucks to fly alone. But it happens. Why the drama?

I think SL got it right - this is the one time of year when people who NEVER fly, get on planes. So all the assumptions I make about business people in the seats around me are violated, in spectacular fashion.
It's four o'clock in the morning, damnit.
Listen to me good!
I'm sleeping with myself tonight.
Thank god my music is still alive!
-- Elton John
I met Elton John - figuratively, not literally, by the way - a few years ago.

I had, of course, heard his hits, but didn't know the less popular (and often better) songs of his. Such as "Someone saved my life tonight", quoted above; it's a great song, but is far from the best song on that particular album. It is, however, the one playing in my head just now.

I met this music on a summer afternoon, in JR's east bay backyard. It was hot that day, very hot. The sun was blazingly bright, and we were tanning. We turned on the sprinkler to cool off - one of those hot days.

Seems somehow very right for me to find myself sitting on a ratty chair, in the backyard, on the concrete soaking up the sun - very Arkansas. No fancy beaches, or even nice furniture, no. Just thee, and me, and a boom box.

We traded music that day. She wanted me to know her, and her music. She had been a singer in a small (drunken) band when she was at Accenture (it was Andersen then). She loved the music she sang, ranging from Aimee Mann to the Pretenders.

But her true love of music was all tied up in Elton John. She had bought his albums, and played the early ones on a portable turntable on her bed in Indiana, dreaming of his voice, and the stories that he told, and feeling free and safe.

Somewhere inside of JR was Elton, struggling to get out.

I wanted her to learn to like surf punk - my offering was the Vandals. She was a good sport; I ultimately got her to go to a Vandals show.

But the winner that day was me; I learned more. And the prize was my identification of a few Elton John songs that were so right for me.
Captain Fantastic
Raised and regimented
Hardly a hero.
Just someone his mother might know
--Elton John
We sat there, in the sun, sweating, and getting tan. Well, not so much on the tan - she was white as snow, with fair skin and light hair. And my tan? Well, let's just say my tan is mostly a byproduct of the emissions from a computer monitor. But we pretended to like tanning.

We sat there and listened to Elton John song after song; she told me what they were about, and the history, and her story of them. She pulled out her favorite artifact - a well-worn album book (remember albums?) that told many stories about Elton and Bernie Taupin (who wrote those lyrics I loved so much). I read it, cover to cover, and we talked about the stories. Which ones we believed, and which ones were probably just PR fluff.

The sun went down, and we sat there. Listening, and laughing, and learning about each other. She drank vodka with cranberry - I'm sad to say I have forgotten her favorite kind of vodka, but it was some fancy brand that was thick and syrupy. I drank beer, but had a vodka drink when she made it. I hated it, but told her I liked it. She laughed, and told me I couldn't lie.

The light reflected off of her blonde hair, refracted into joy, and the tears in my eyes now are just from the sun.
I knew then I had lost
What should have been found.
--Elton John
Sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing.

I was at the gym the other day, doing some core work on a mat. I had been using one of those exercise balls - just like the one I sit on in my office - and was done with it. It was in my way, however, so I pushed it off to the side.

The floor wasn't even, I guess, because it just rolled back to me. Hmm, the cat really did come back!

Again, I rolled, and, again, it returned.

I was getting a bit frustrated, so I rolled it a bit harder, and in a slightly different direction. It came to a stop, but was wobbling as if it was going to roll back again. I reached out to grab it, but Fate held my hand. I waited just that extra second; in that second, I could see that the ball had come to rest in some local minimum. It wasn't rolling back to me, but if I had touched it, I probably would have destabilized it, and it would have rolled again.

But because I did nothing, I got my outcome. Truly, sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing.

I found this idea remarkably compelling. It makes me think of mentoring, golf, and relationships. And the phrase wouldn't go away.

Usually when that happens to me, I generate great blog posts - something in my subconscious needs out, and just wants to use my fingertips as scribes for its wisdom.

This time? Not so much. Perhaps it will emerge, as I write through this mess?

When you are mentoring someone, it's often tempting to assign your values, and your history, and your view onto the person you are spending time with. After all, they came to you because you are successful, right? But this approach won't work - they aren't you. Even if they are facing the SAME challenge as you have faced before, the person in front of you is different from you. And some lessons you have learned can't be taught; you have to do nothing, and try to help them see the lesson themselves. If you try too hard, all you will do is preach, and alienate them. They probably won't hear you, and you will have lost a chance to make the world around you better.
If you listen to dogs barking, you will only go deaf and be no wiser
--an old proverb, whose provenance I do not know
In that case, when you sit there with that young talent, the best thing you can do is to do nothing. Let him (or her) talk, don't judge, and don't evaluate. Just be. Sometimes it's important to just talk, don't think.

I used to play golf a lot. I am a bit of a perfectionist. I wanted to do better, every day - every round was an opportunity to improve. Sometimes, however, I'd decide that I needed to change my swing path, my club selection, my alignment, and whatever else had penetrated my consciousness that day. Change all that, on the same day, in the same round.

I was having one of those days once when I had my weekly golf lesson. My golf pro listened to my litany of woes impassively, waited me out, and said nothing when I was done. He peered at me, from under his Titleist hat, breathing slowly and regularly.

I waited, like Grasshopper for enlightenment.

The Master then uttered the great truth. "Go home. Really. Go home. Don't play another round for a week or so. You need to stop thinking so much."

I was deflated - how can it be bad to think? My whole path through life has been to think, harder and faster. But somehow thinking had become my golfsbane, spoiling my strategy for spoiling a perfectly good walk. How to recover? What to do next?

I could change putters, maybe to one of those two-handed ones, that might help. But I'd have to play to find out if it actually helped, which is forbidden.

So I went back to my house, with my tail between my legs, to figure out how to spend a week without golf. As I thought about this, I was reminded of the advice a friend had given me when I was first learning to ski.

I was perched at the top of a reasonably steep slope, and was plotting my way down the slope. I was trying to identify each and every bump, and a way to navigate them on two strangely modified sticks that were connected to my feet. I knew that the key to this whole thing was to plan a descent.

But I wasn't actually skiing, I was thinking.

My friend - who is both a terribly successful businessman and a great skier, slid up to me, and looked at me with a smirk.

"Dude, turn your brain off and ski," quoth he, before executing a quick jump turn and attacking the slope, with no planning at all.

I trusted him, so I tried it. Didn't plan, just rode the slope, letting my knees take up the bumps, and counting on my turns to slow me down.

It worked. It was terribly freeing. And probably among the best runs I had done to date.

I couldn't think my way through the bumps, I just had to ride them out; I couldn't think my way through a round of golf, I just had to let the club do the work and trust their reasoning.
Put your arms around me,
What you feel is what you are.
And what you are is beautiful.
--Goo Goo Dolls
There is the lesson today, mes amis. One can't think through life; one can only try to feel it, suck up the bumps, and hope it all comes out all right. Planning is optional; riding is not.

As I said, sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing.

So this is perhaps my resolution for New Year's: I can't think my way through grief, or into love. I just have to ride it out, trusting my instincts and my body. I'll turn when I'm going too fast, and I'll let my eyes follow the ball.

And the sun will shine again on that patio, and Elton will play from my stereo, and I will drink a vodka drink (although I may not like it, again), and I love again, and the rest is history.

Happy Christmas. I'll see you in 2007.


  • The question is, "How do you tell?"
    Sometimes inaction is the mother of all failures. Though it is true that sometimes the best thing is doing nothing, I find it very difficult to figure out just when that is true.

    By Blogger thenakedsingularity, at 8:15 AM  

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