The Other End of Sunset

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Well, the book has a lot of grief in it…

Hello, out there. Anybody there? Is there anybody in there? Just smile if you can hear me.

I'm on a brief vacation, in that lovely city in the Southwest. Well, actually, just north of it, but that’s rounding error. It’s morning. I'm alone. Somehow I always end up alone for hours on vacations. Which you would think would be a good thing for an introvert, but I just end up getting lonely.

Off in the distance is the pool at the hotel where I'm staying. Folks are starting to gather there, after their breakfast. There’s an older couple, bickering slightly about which cabana to choose; there’s a group of women, including one who brought a strange movable shade made of bright blue fabric that attaches to her pool chair, and provides shade for her head and face.

I'm not there. Maybe I will be in a while, but at the moment, I'm sitting here, outside, looking in. A comfortable position for me, a familiar position, the social critic, safely on the sidelines. The peanut gallery, c’est moi.

// Side note, apparently, Word doesn’t speak French, and so flagged those as misspelled words. I'm so reliant on my tools that I checked to make sure they are, in fact, spelled correctly. I have known those particular words since my first French class in 7th grade. That was a long, long time ago. Ironic how your assurance can be lessened by something as simple as a squiggly red line. (Appropriate shout out here to Dan Quayle, who didn’t actually misspell that word…) //

As is common for my morning scribbling, I have lovely flora and inquisitive fauna to keep me entertained. The flora here is ice plant and Saguaro and barrel cactus, and some strange tree-like thing without leaves but covered entirely in bright green bark, and prickly pear cactus.

The fauna is simpler, more Spartan. There are lizards. Lots of lizards. And birds, none that I recognize, but man, oh man, are they loud. I've awakened each day here to the sound of bird chirps. I'm sure that’s a great sound, but it’s quite loud.

The coolest fauna, so far anyway, though, is stopped about 10 feet in front of me. A little brown rabbit, with big ears, is hanging out in the scrub brush and rocks just in front of the patio where I sit to craft this. He was hopping around, looking for… whatever it is that bunnies look for in the desert… until he got over by me. Now, he’s just hanging out, chilling, and looking at me. I wonder what I can do for him. I wonder what’s going through his little brain? He’s looking pretty cool, for a hot sunny day in Arizona. I like him – maybe he and I can be friends? He can hop on by my pad anytime. Well, I guess frogs have pads, and it’s a lot of hops from here to the Bay Area, but conceptually, he’s a part of my life anytime he wants. Have a great day, Mr. Rabbit, and do, by all means, be on time.

I think it’s important to be kind, sometimes randomly, and oftentimes with intent. I have a great story about pure, unadulterated kindness, from my childhood. Want to hear it?

I have something wrong with both knees. I was born with whatever is wrong. I am short cartilage in both knees, apparently, and perhaps had at least one plica, and have spent a fair chunk of my life doing something to make my knees feel better. And a fair chunk of time doing stuff that makes my knees feel worse, but that’s not relevant just now. This is a story of the first real knee pain I can remember.

I was attending a small private school – Cadron Academy, if you must know – in Conway, Arkansas. Probably the best educational experience I ever had. I was playing out back, during recess, and I felt a strange tenseness in my right knee. I ignored it, and kept playing kickball – I was a kickball rock star, I'll have you know, and could kick the ball all the way over the school roof, which was a home run. Anyway, the tenseness lessened in a few minutes, and I kept on.

It was around Easter, and there was an Easter egg hunt that day. I was not going to miss it! No way! So I paid attention, gingerly moving my leg this way and that, and I noticed that as long as I didn’t bend the knee too much, it didn’t hurt. So, armed with my new knowledge – and a fairly odd gait – I joined the egg hunt

I was running around gathering eggs, when I heard a pop, and found myself on the ground.

I had no idea what happened, nor any context, and definitely no reference in my prepubescent cortex for what might have happened.

I was confused, in pain, afraid, and … embarrassed. Dude, I was lying on the ground during an egg hunt! I hopped back up, shuffled back into the schoolroom, making as brave a face as I could, and hid in a corner.

And started to cry. As quietly as I could. Tears streamed down my face, making little marks on my cheeks.

I sat there, alone. Thinking nobody noticed, and trying to figure out how I was going to walk home in a few hours. I walked to school every day – it wasn’t far, maybe a mile or two. But, at that point, it didn’t even feel like I could walk.

After some period of time – maybe 30 minutes, maybe 30 hours – of sitting there, another student, a little boy named Adrian, came up to me. Adrian was the son of one of the teachers. He was small – almost fey, pixie-like – with dark hair and ivory-white skin. His hair was always slightly messy, and was so dark against his cheeks that it was almost as if he was wearing a hood, all the time.

I don’t remember Adrian’s voice that well – I think he didn’t speak much. He was quiet and shy, and just went about his work day by day. One of those people you don’t notice, or know, even though you spend a lot of time around them. Or rather, even though they spend a lot of time around you.

At any rate, Adrian walked up to me and, in a quiet, gentle voice, said “It’s ok, Douglas. We will all split the candy up equally! You can have some of mine if you want?”

Wow. Even though he was wrong about why I was crying, it’s hard to imagine how much gentility – nobility – is in a little boy who offers to give his candy to some arbitrary other kid who is crying his eyes out.

Thanks, Adrian. Sometimes kindness is noticed. I struggle to be as nice today, decades later, as you were as a little boy.

I wonder what happened to him. I hope that people notice him now. And that he is still that kind.

Kindnesses come in all forms, though.

Some of you may know that I always have music playing in my head. I may actually have commented on this at some point already, but let’s pretend I haven’t, ok? I go through life with a soundtrack. Most of the time the song that’s playing is prosaic – it’s what I heard that morning when my alarm clock went off (and all the other songs by that artist), or it is the tune you were whistling when I walked by you in the cafeteria. Or some such.

But it’s not always mundane. Sometimes, the music in my head is relevant to my life. I haven’t been putting a lot of lyrics into these postings, lately, but I used to stick them in, mid-flow, just to punctuate the dreariness of what I was describing.

Mostly, though, much like John Cusack, I organize my life around music.

There used to be a punk club in San Francisco, in SOMA. It was a pit. Well, it was exactly what a punk club should be. When Jeanne was traveling, I would sometimes put on my engineer boots, old jeans and trashed T-shirt, and make the trek over the bridge to listen to the “music” that got played there. And wonder about the people who danced, and drank, around me.

One particular weekend, I noticed a man with close-cropped black hair, dark eyes, no neck, and lots of tattoos sitting at the bar. Everyone seemed to know him. I looked at him, with some vague hint of recognition.

After a while, he turned to look at me. My look? Inquisitive, thoughtful. Staring, a bit rudely, now that I think about it.

His look? Tense, threatening, almost crazy. But very, very focused.

And I recognized him. It was Henry Rollins.

For those of you who don’t spend much time exploring your inner Punk, Henry Rollins was the lead singer of a really major punk band (Black Flag).

Well, he was the second singer in that band, true.

And nobody “sang” in punk, but work with me here.

Henry Rollins was important to me.

I grew up in Arkansas. I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t nice – I acted out every chance I could, and was a snot-nosed little punk. I'm not sure I liked myself much, but I definitely know that just about nobody else did. I was trying, so hard, to find something that I could feel at home in. Somewhere that I could “fit in”.

And I had no idea where that place was. Then one day, I was wandering around a small liberal arts college that happened to be in our town, and I heard some music playing from a dorm room. It was weird, and not very well done, and exuded a sense of anger and anomie that was palpable.

It was punk, but not punk like the Pistols (that I love, by the way), but different. Grittier. Overcoming my inordinate fear of appearing less-than-omniscient, I asked the guy playing the music what it was.

It was Black Flag. I don’t recall what song, or album, but I remember being transfixed by … well, how bad it was. And yet the lyrics – those I could understand – were quite erudite and reminded me of myself. Although I couldn’t possibly explain why, or how, it reminded me of myself, it did.

And I was hooked. I started listening to a bunch of American punk, and reading everything I could find on the culture. Although I ultimately settled more on West Coast surf punk than the Flag-style music, I still have to give the honors to Flag for opening my eyes.

When I saw the punk culture, with its rejection of social norms, and its disdain for conformity for its own sake, I found a place I fit in.

I didn’t know that the culture wasn’t real, and that it was dying; it was all I needed.

The hope for a place to fit in, and the promise of a future – albeit one in eye-liner and messy leather – carried me through my teenage years until I left the South.

Although he didn’t know it, Henry Rollins gave me that promise.

I wanted to go thank him, that night in San Francisco. I wanted to tell him this cheesy story. But I didn’t. I thought he would think I was a tool. I thought he might be annoyed because some yuppie poser was interrupting his peace and quiet.

I was just too embarrassed.

As CarpoolPal says “What a perfect Douglas story” – I had the chance to have a great experience, to talk to somebody awesome, and I was worried about doing it wrong. Feh.

Anyway, thanks Henry – do you mind if I call you Henry? I hope that you are sitting on a bar stool, talking like a damn fool somewhere, listening to great spoken word or really bad punk.

Truly kindness comes in all forms. I have one last kindness to do for Jeanne. I have a small amount of her ashes that I have not yet distributed. The last bit goes at one of her favorite spots in the world, a spot she and I went to, and played at, and laughed. Indeed, a place for Angels. I'll do that kindness soon.

I realize why I'm putting it off.

I don’t want to be out of kindnesses that I can do for Jeanne. I am not ready for her to be gone.

Maybe I'll wait a while longer to scatter the last bit of JR’s essence I have.

But I know that I made her a promise, and I will fulfill that promise. I will make sure she gets to spend eternity where she wanted. And I made her another promise, the morning she died. I promised not to forget her. I won’t.

And I think, perhaps, that some of you readers will also know a bit about her, and maybe, just maybe, you won’t forget her either.

And the promise of that is as freeing to me as Rollins’ words, and as kind as Adrian’s.