The Other End of Sunset

Monday, April 09, 2007

Straighten the wheels before accelerating out of the corner

Hello my OtherEnders. It’s been a busy week. I'm sitting in an airport, waiting for a flight back to the Bay Area. No, I'm not in that lovely city in the Southwest, I'm in Vegas. I spent a couple of days doing a work event – I led a panel on innovation, which was way fun.

And, of course, there was a boondoggle component. More on that in a few minutes. First, let’s do our context talk – it’s kind of an OtherEnd tradition, don’t you think?

Vegas is the city that most typifies modern America to me. Nothing is real, nobody is real, and generally speaking, everything is for sale. I love my country. I know our history, good and ill; we are not angels. But we are generally on the side of truth. Which is great. Generally, apparently, but I don’t include the current administration.

Somebody smarter for President. I have a button that says this. It was a great button during the second campaign, is still a great button. Of course, it’s a bit of damning with faint praise – EVERYBODY is smarter than the current guy.

// Side note: Here’s to regime change, at home, and to no longer selling our future to special interests in ill-thought out plans. This is unrelated to the rest of my post. But I needed to make a quick political statement. //

My panel on innovation was really fun. More or less, I have been studying or thinking about innovation for a long time. It is always fun to talk to people about it – especially senior executives from companies that are…somewhat more conservative than where I hang my hat. I am particularly fond of the “so what” discussion that inevitably arises. Generally, I think leadership is not very useful – except, perhaps, in this case.

The best part of this panel, however, was the members. I got to sit on a panel with HJP, Q, and Mitchell. Three people I respect more than I can describe, and each with interesting and unusual thoughts on a variety of topics, including this one. We didn’t really rehearse – we had a conference call to talk (for about 10 minutes) about what we were going to say – and we didn’t really have a plan – we had a two paragraph email. But it was great. Went from my pseudo-stand-up comedy to Q’s historical perspective to Mitchell saving the world (for real) to HJP talking about how doing it right changes even the most stilted places.

I really enjoyed myself. OK, I had a pen malfunction while I was twittering around during HJP’s bit of the talk, but the rest was fun.

But it’s funny – I'm sad about the whole thing. For various reasons, none of them very important, I ended up spending almost no time with any of my friends. I missed Q entirely. I mostly missed HJP, due to a mutual phone snafu. I got to have dinner with Mitchell, but still ended up leaving him alone a lot of the time. Basically, I felt like I failed my friends, by not being around enough. I hate that feeling. I'm always oversensitive to being a flake.

First, admit you have a problem. I'm a bit of a flake. I love my friends, and if they need me, I'm there. But I'm not entirely reliable otherwise. And I hate that about myself. I particularly hate it when I can’t avoid thinking it. Like when my friends all leave early, because they aren’t having fun, and I think I'm the reason they aren’t having fun.

I feel very guilty. Guilt that is made worse by the reason I missed HJP. There was a big auto race in Las Vegas this weekend. As part of that, I got to ride in a Formula One car. Yes, you read that right. I got to be a passenger in the most advanced piece of automotive engineering ever made.

Minardi has a set of 3 of last year’s F1 cars that they modified to add a second seat behind the driver. The passenger’s legs go around the driver, and there is a rollbar/divider in front of the passenger’s face (forming the headrest for the driver). I got the opportunity to sit in that seat and do three laps around the Las Vegas Grand Prix course. It was wild – the acceleration and braking are inhuman, and the cornering force was amazing. I kept my abs tensed the entire time, and braced myself to keep from having my head slammed into the divider in front of me by the brakes.

I had a really good time – except I got really motion sick. I get motion sick easily, especially when I can’t see where I'm going. The divider blocked my view forward, so I could only see to the sides most of the time, and I got really carsick.

Not very manly, huh? The best I can do, when I get the opportunity to ride in a $20 million car is get carsick? What kind of loser gets carsick in an F1 car?

I'm just not that manly, I guess.

And even worse, it took about 4 hours to make the whole thing happen. 4 hours that I could have spent with HJP, but instead spent sequestered off to the side, in another area, while he was wandering around by himself getting bored and lonely.

I blew a chance to hang with my friend in order to get carsick.

After that, HJP and Mitchell both went home. Q had left already. I recovered – eventually – from my carsickness, and went to a dinner. At the dinner, I sat next to Dick. Dick is a fascinating man – CEO of a racing organization, and a Korean War veteran. And, as it turns out, his wife died from lung cancer in September of last year. Dick and I talked for hours about Patty (his wife) and Jeanne. There were so many similarities, so many things that we did the same, and a few differences.

She didn’t suffer much either, and was mentally present up until the end. A great story to that effect. His wife’s birthday was in September. He held a big birthday party for her, with all their friends. Everyone came, and Patty was able to interact with her guests all evening long. Afterwards, the next day, she had Dick take a few pictures of a favorite spot in her garden – a rock wall with flowers all over it – and used the pictures to make a Thank You card, which got sent to all the attendees.

The letters got finalized, and put in the mail, on Saturday afternoon.

That night, Dick kissed Patty goodnight, and went to sleep. He woke up in the middle of the night to hear Patty’s breath catching a little in her throat, like she was congested, but it soon evened out again, and they both went to sleep. He went to sleep, to wake the next morning. She went to sleep that night never to wake again.

He was slightly regretful that he didn’t get to be holding her hand as she passed, and was slightly envious of my story of Jeanne’s passing, but we are both grateful that our loves passed quietly, at home, and not in pain.

It was simultaneously wonderful and awful to hear his stories. Patty sounded really nice, like a great lady. And how much his stories sounded like mine was quite shocking. It makes me wonder – are there commonalities in how people die? Or is it that we all remember the stories in some similar way? Perhaps there is some softening, some adjustment of history, that we do in order to reassure ourselves, to give ourselves hope that we were right, and did the right things, for our loved ones. This idea of a shared memory post-processing seems fairly compelling.

I know that I would sleep better, and dream less, if I believed that I had really done well by Jeanne. It’s easy for me to say that I did my best, but I wonder if I did? Could I have done better? Does it matter? Maybe not, but I will never get the chance to do better for her.

I hope she knew I loved her, and wanted her, and was aware of how much I was going to miss her. I am different since she died. I might be better in a few ways, but I'm certainly worse in several. I'm less emotionally resilient than I was. I am more sensitive, and get my feelings hurt more easily, and don’t have as much endurance for people in my life giving me what I need from them.

And I find myself apologizing – sincerely – in ridiculous ways, when I screw up on a holiday or something. Because I don’t know if I'll get another chance.

I'm bummed about not spending enough time with my friends.

Even worse, I screwed up SL’s Easter, because I didn’t understand something, and I had a plan in my head (that I didn’t explain very clearly), and when that plan started to go awry, I got all anxious. When I get anxious, I get snippy. I spoiled her Easter by being snippy, and anxious, and generally a twit. That holiday might never come again. I may never get another Easter. One never knows. I never got another Easter with Jeanne.

I know I cover this ground a lot, I'm sorry for the dull repetition. I have an analogy in my head here – life is like a street race. It’s a bit like the cars going around the Vegas Grand Prix course. There are some high speed places, where you are passing through your life under as much power as you have and the wind is howling past your ears, and other places with sharp corners, where you have slammed on the brakes as hard as you can and the safety belt is digging into your shoulders so hard that it is physically painful.

You go around the course a lot of times, and have to get it mostly right, each and every time.

And you have to wait until you are through the corner before you press the accelerator. If you put the power down while still turning, you’ll lose traction. You’ll experience oversteer. The back end of the car will start coming around the front end. If you don’t correct, and quickly, you will end up spinning, and you might crash into a wall.

Your day will be over. And even better? Your car will shatter into thousands of pieces. Those pieces might cut the tires of other competitors, and end their day as well.

Now there’s a nice image, huh? It’s not enough that I'm hurt, but I might screw up and hurt others!

That’s why I work so hard to think about Jeanne, and talk about her, and remember that I love her, and try to feel like I was successful with her. Or, at least, that I was successful enough. Because this is my way of turning in to the corner, and the tightness in my stomach when I think about it is just the lateral G-force pulling the blood from my body.

And I will focus on keeping off the accelerator until I am at the apex of the corner, each and every time. No matter how many times I pass by this course. Because I don’t want to leave shards of my heart and soul around that could hurt someone else.

Who knows, maybe I can shave a second or two off of my lap time, with some practice.