The Other End of Sunset

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Trailbraking my way out of that corner

A circumstance beyond our control,
The phone, the TV and the news of the world
Got in the house like a pigeon from hell,
Threw sand in our eyes and descended like flies
-- The Pretenders

Across the street from my house is a huge field, on a ridge. I mean, huge. It’s like a mile long. Well, I don’t know how long, because I stink at estimating distance. But it’s big.

And it usually has a herd of cows on it, grazing, mooing, generally looking dumb – you know, what cows do.

It’s really lovely. The hill is green and grassy, and gently rolling from a creek at the bottom up to the ridge in the distance. The grass is thick and lush, and somehow unusually alive. Almost like some sloppy demigod took the cloth off his demigod-sized pool table and tossed it on the ground by my house.

Thanks for littering, buddy.

Actually, really, thanks. It’s awesome to look at.

But don’t litter.

The ground near my house has a lot of clay in it – there’s a layer of dirt on top of it, but the clay itself is the dominant element. The layer of dirt at my house was about 6 inches thick – not too much. Thus, every time it rained, my grass flooded. Which meant that my dogs were constantly COVERED in mud. Cleaning dog paws all the time stinks. So, I replaced all the grass at my house with chips and rocks and the like. It’s pretty, but not grassy. And more importantly, not muddy.

Back to my story. I drive by this huge field many times each week.

This year has been pretty dry. Last year was very wet. It rained seemingly constantly, and pretty hard. Kind of appropriate, actually; last year, when Jeanne was sick, it was constantly grey and rainy. Matched my mood, and my fears.

There’s clay in that great field as well – it’s farther down, under more dirt, but it’s there.

Last year, as the deluge of rain kept falling, the thin veneer of dirt got unstable. The grass grew in the dirt, and became greener and more lush, but the dirt wasn’t anchored to the hill. It wasn’t stable, but it was lovely.

One night, in February or so, after Jeanne had been diagnosed, but before she got terribly ill, we were in bed one night, and heard a terrible ripping sound. The next morning, as we drove by the field, we saw that large pieces of the land had slid down into the creek.

There were these rips in the green, like huge horrible claw marks, where the dirt showed through. Perhaps that demigod got angry and shredded the field in a fit of pique.

Or maybe it was a sign for what was about to happen to our lives. The beauty that was, split asunder, with the jagged gouges visible to all who happen by. Sinners in the hands of an angry god.

The dirt, and the uprooted grass, lay in a disordered pile – a bag of bones, if you will – at the bottom of the hill, by the creek. The cows struggled to figure out how to graze in the gouges, although they figured it out, and the creek was changed by the pools of muddy grass.

'Cause I have no secrets from you
And I have nothing left to hide
And I'm open to all your questions
-- George Michael

I drove by the field the other day. A year later. A death later. I’m older, thinner, with longer hair and more tattoos. And I have more nightmares.

But you know what else?

There is new grass. The grass has grown over the claw marks, and has softened the piles at the bottom of the hill. If you didn’t know the cuts were there, you wouldn’t be able to find them.

And the new grass is lovely. Truly, truly lovely. Perhaps even lovelier now – because I know that I must appreciate it, each day, as a gift.

// Side note: I thought about quoting “Landslide” here, but the connection was just too clear, too obvious, and not creative enough. But I thought about it, I must admit. Back to our regularly scheduled programming. //

Is the new grass somehow second to the old grass? It looks the same, is it in fact precisely the same? Should we mourn the old grass, or celebrate the new growth? Or maybe, just maybe, we must do both – mourn and celebrate.

And perhaps we celebrate the old grass as well, since the old grass made the hill lovely and livable before. It set the stage not only for the beauty that was shredded, but also for the tragedy. And the tragedy itself yielded beauty after the slide. If you will, the old made the landslide possible – it provided the context within which the sadness happened.

Yes, I think that’s it. We must celebrate and mourn, simultaneously, for the old grass. Thank it for its beauty and for creating the context of our lives, and be sad that it is gone.

And treat the new grass as lovely in its own right, verdant and alive, providing the fodder for new cows and new stories.

The new grass is wonderful, too, not lesser, just after. Not second, subservient to the old grass, but enabled by the presence of the first and its absence.

Life is somehow like that children’s toy they have in playgrounds that spins around. You know, the one where you sat on the metal disk, and held onto metal U-shaped rails, and tried not to get thrown off, and not to get sick. I loved that game, when I could play it. I get sick easily, but I loved the feeling of freedom.

Indeed, life is a wheel, and the trick is to know when to get off, when to hold on, and when to just breathe.

And all these games that you play
Don't tell me how a man should be
Some would say if you knew
You wouldn't be here with me
-- George Michael

I was talking to my old friend the other day, about life. Seems like I’m constitutionally unable to have light, pointless conversations. Of course, he’s not much better – he runs a non-profit that has the goal of eliminating poverty, and he has numbers and graphs (with circles and arrows and paragraphs on the back) that tell how much money is required to achieve certain goals. VERY cool, and surprisingly cheap.

Let me digress for a second. Did you all know that about $50 BILLION are distributed by charities every year? That’s a lot of money. Of course, that’s about $5 per poor person in the world, which is a meal at a fast food restaurant for us, but still, it’s a bunch of bucks. And it doesn’t feel like the world is getting wealthier, or safer, or more open, or less sick. My friends’ organization has a very different approach – rather than investing in infrastructure, they invest in leaders in the villages who then invest in infrastructure. Sounds trivial, right? It’s akin to teaching someone to fish rather than giving them a fish. And it seems to work. Their villages have lower migration rates than comparable villages. Future big infrastructure investments in their villages, such as by USAID, are more effective than similar investments in other villages.

Apparently leadership prepares the ground for future success. Who knew?

Hey, have you given time or money to someone less fortunate than you lately? You don’t have to go far to find someone, trust me. Even here in seemingly mega-rich Northern CA there is poverty, illness, and drug addiction. Go help somebody. Please.

Once again, corralling myself back into my wispy thread of narrative. My friend and I were talking about what life is, what makes it all the point. I’m a fairly goal-directed person. It’s a standing joke with my work friends – I set myself three-year goals, and then hit them, whether the goal was to be out of a particular field, or into a different kind of company.

Fairly impressive, especially for someone who doesn’t really believe that humans can plan.

// Side note: There is a bunch of cognitive science research into “planning”. And a lot of general analytic thought, like Jim Dewar’s work on Assumption-Based planning. And many books and articles have been written describing how we figure out what we are going to do next. I don’t really believe most of it. When you look very closely, we are less intelligent than we think we are. Figuring out the future is a tough task. I try to avoid it. And I think others do too. But this isn’t relevant to my story, so let’s go back to my kitchen, a cup of coffee, and my friend. //

My friend has lost a couple of people close to him in the past few months. Perhaps as a result, and perhaps just because, he is a convert to a new school of life studies. He believes that life is a loosely ordered collection of unrelated moments that we hang off the framework of our goals. Life is NOT the goals themselves. He came to see me to talk about a particular business problem, but the most “valuable” part of our time together was talking in my kitchen, over a cup of really bad coffee about life and love, and his loss and my loss, and our partners.

The goal we accomplished – working on the business problem – was far less substantial than the coffee klatch.

My friend believes that all that matters in life is those moments, with the rest just serving as color and contrast for the flashes between events.

I drove my ship of safety ‘til I sank it
-- The Indigo Girls

He might be right, but then what of my single-minded focus on setting and achieving goals? What’s the point of goals if the real story is what happens in between?

For heaven’s sake, was my mother right when she said, “nobody ever died wishing they’d worked more”??

And was the landslide the interstitial on which I should focus? Surely not. Surely that was simply a bright light shone, without warning, onto my life? A falling star to make me pay attention to the other part of my life?

I guess here’s my issue for the day. If life is these moments between goals – the interstitial life, if you will – then how does one ensure they notice and enjoy those moments? How do you know what the interstitials are, versus things that are just noise? But if one focuses on the interstitials, they are now the subjects; as a result, do they lose their emergent value and become just another part of contrast?

So, then, must I maintain my focus on goals, that are somehow irrelevant, in order to get the benefit of the interstitials?

Can one just live, and not go somewhere? Brownian motion seems uninteresting to me, but I do love those moments between. Can I organize my life to create opportunities for even better incidental movement? This is, I believe the question for me.

I believe the new grass is not second to the old grass, and I can still see the claw marks, and I believe that I get to have a life with interstitials, and I shall try to pay attention to them.

Even if sometimes they have sound and pop-ups.