The Other End of Sunset

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Grapes, please! Please!

Is it better to be better than to be anything?
--Counting Crows

Jeanne was much better at communication than I. She could listen to me have a little temper tantrum, filter out the random bits, and ask me a question or two that made me feel understood. I guess there's an aspect of my personality that throws tantrums -- I sometimes call it throwing my blocks around, like a little boy.

Not my most charming quality. But, unfortunately, real.

And, like some hypertrophic two year old, it happens when I'm frustrated. In my coldly analytical mind, it happens because I'm trying to say I need something, and getting ignored or misunderstood. The problem? I'm much better at thinking than I am talking, so the thing I'm asking for sometimes comes out garbled.

And the person with whom I'm throwing blocks has to try and decode what I meant. If they are interested. And, normally, why would one be interested?

Only strong people talk about vulnerability.
--Jeanne Russell

That line is from a yellow sticky in Jeanne's writing, that I found in her office stuff after she died. I think it's a variant on something I said to her.

During the dot com collapse, in a wave of corporate self-immolation, Jeanne was laid off. Now, granted, her layoff included a year and a half of salary and bonus and stock vesting, so I preferred to think of it as a very extended vacation. But, nonetheless, she didn't have a job, and wanted to find another.

The job market is always hard on everyone's ego -- it's like the worst dating scene in a bar ever. It's possible that my bar experiences are worse than yours. So, I'll speak in generalities, rather than expose my general (complete) inability to buy anyone a drink. (But I have a nice personality, and good handwriting, really). Anyway, it appears to me that, generally, no matter how good-looking you are, you get shot down more times than you get phone numbers.

Jeanne was facing being shot down a lot of times before she got any numbers. Jeanne got several job offers, as it turned out, but only took one, for a few weeks.

And then she got sick. But that's not relevant for this story.

She was afraid that nobody would hire her. In fact, at a few points, the fear nearly paralyzed her. She didn't know how to deal with being a "failure" at work. Despite the fact she wasn't a failure, and never would be, the trauma of the (inevitable) mistakes and losses that add up in a life, at that moment, to her, scored her as "failure".

She was terrified. She'd never really failed in her life, but (like all of us) she had several hiccups that she had labelled as failures. She'd been a young, lovely, drunken beauty in a consulting firm. She'd made the requisite mistakes with men, married and otherwise. She'd screwed up a few tasks, and hadn't always kept her "integrity", whatever that means. And here was another potential failure, and maybe she couldn't pull out of this one.

She talked about it a lot. Well, not really, I'd recognize that something was bothering her, and try to get her to talk about it, and (sometimes) a fight would result.

She'd fight because she was afraid, and fear -- in addition to being a solo emotion -- seems to reduce us to animal behavior. If you scare an animal it has two choices, run away or attack. She couldn't run away. So, sometimes, when I pressed her to talk about her thoughts, instead of talking, she attacked.

And man did she have sharp claws when she wanted to use them.

In that context, I'd fight because I got my feelings hurt. I'd like to say that I stood there, Yoda-esque, and ignored the emotional waves crashing around me. That is what I am supposed to do. That's what "men" do; or so I was told. And sometimes I did so. I'm proud of those times. But not always.

One time, after one of my better jobs of channeling Yoda, her truth came out -- she was scared and, paradoxically, tired of talking about it. She felt weak.

She didn't want to be weak. Weak, to her, equalled pathetic. And she *never* wanted to be pathetic. She was strong, sharp, funny, lovely... any number of things. But never pathetic.

But, see, she wasn't weak. Weak people act differently. They don't talk about their fears.

Instead, weak people have to win every fight. Everything is, in that world view, a fight to the finish. You can't have the other person be right, because that would be a "win" for them. And, lord knows, you can't lose, on even a single point, because then the other will be on a modern-day Sherman's march through Georgia, burning up all your crops and homes just because they can.

Nope, weak people don't show their vulnerabilities. Nor do they listen to others. They just fight, reflexively, on every point as if their lives depended on it.

Jeanne wasn't weak, she wasn't fighting, she was trying to manage her fear. And I said, offhand, that her effort, and talking about it, was a mark of strength.

Apparently, that offhand remark had a lasting impact on her. Not because the remark was wise -- it's not -- but because she was wise, and strong enough to listen.

Sometimes I wish more of us were that wise. Often, I wish I was that wise. But me? I just throw blocks for a living.

Now main street's whitewashed windows
and vacant stores.
Seems like there ain't noboby
wants to come down here no more.
--Bruce Springsteen

As is so often the case, I'm sitting alone on a balcony in the early morning light, writing. I'm looking at the ocean, and feeling the loneliness that grips me at these times. The sense that I'm invisible, inaudible, imperceptible. Envious of the sleep of those with clear consciences. Envious of the sleep, at all, in fact.

If I was asleep, I wouldn't be feeling this. Don't know what I'd be feeling, but it would be nicer than this disembodied pathos.

It's better here than it was in Mexico, last year, because there are some people around in the distance. I can see their tracks from my lonely balcony. For example, the city is built up with horribly ugly apartment buildings off to my right, on the East. In front of me, and to my left, is the ocean. There are two people kayaking a few hundred yards off shore. A few thousand yards farther, there are four container ships queued up, waiting to enter the port.

The shadows cast by the sun, not yet visible behind Table Mountain, are getting shorter, but have that starkness of a new day, filled with new hopes.

At my feet, there are the remains of two french fries, from a midday snack yesterday. The remains are crawling with ants. Ants appear to be the City animal of Cape Town. They are everywhere.

But there is nothing talking. No voices. No one close enough that I could bask in their reflected life energy.

And it's cold.

Time to take a break and go get a coffee. Surely the kitchen is open, or at least I can stumble my way and find something that will warm me up, help me thaw, inside.

I'll be back.

I can't be right if I'm always wrong
I can't stand up if I'm always kneeling
At your altar or at your throne
You could show just a little feeling
For who I am
Baby you win again
--Mary-Chapin Carpenter

OK, this post is too depressing, even for me. It's self-pitying and fairly annoying. And it's not even about Jeanne's death. I'm just feeling sorry for myself. What a waste of energy.

I left Cape Town today, and am now somewhere in the wine country of South Africa. It's sunny. There are kids playing in the distance. The crickets are talking, nonstop. I'm finally warm. I am going to go have a glass of wine, called, appropriately enough, Luddite Shiraz.

And I'll raise a glass to those that died today in Iraq, to those that starved today in Indonesia, to those that are beaten down by the world, their lovers, their Gods.

Thank you, all, for listening. Maybe go talk to your partner. They might be lonely, and want to be understood, or have help picking up their blocks.

It's funny how the world lives up to
all your expectations.
--Mary-Chapin Carpenter