The Other End of Sunset

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Syncing up after the holidays

There are two lanes
running down this road,
whatever side you're on.
Accounts for where you want to go
and where you're coming from.
--Mary-Chapin Carpenter

SL and I are on our way back from Africa. Parts of the trip were great, some weren't so great. But it was a great experience, as I hoped. We saw saw lots of amazing wildlife, and shantytowns. We talked to people from all over the world, and to several people who had never seen the inside of a jet. I sat at the knee of the Buddha, as he described how his brothers all left school to work so he could graduate from high school. And how determined he was to repay that debt, to the next generation.

I felt joy at accomplishments, and sadness at degradation, and I faced myself each day, thankful for the insane gifts I have been handed, simply because of the color of my skin, and the country of my birth, and my parents' love of education. Gifts are not earned -- my Catholic perspective notwithstanding. Gifts are given, and I am not worthy. But I am grateful.

But there's a foul wind blowing, a wind from the north, pregnant with smoke and tears and war and death. The north wind carries news, and blows the past away.

Sometimes the past is a mist, hanging damp over the hills. Sometimes the past is bright, sunny, Irish green.

Regardless, the wind wins.

SL is heading on an international assignment for three months -- or maybe a bit more. Three months isn't that long -- ask the Reserve units that have been dying in Iraq for longer rotations than they signed up for. But it's a long time to me.

Jeanne died slightly less than six months after she was diagnosed. Not even half a year after I spotted the rash on her back, and the slight yellowing of her eyes. Just a few days later, I was taking her out of a little plastic box, and putting her into 4 ziplock bags, so I could distribute her ashes.

Three months into her illness, more or less, we took her off therapy. Well, more like four, actually, but I like the parallelism of three months here, so I'll stretch the truth to my purposes. After all, the truth is a virus, yes?

Talk to me softly
there's something in your eyes
Don't hang your head in sorrow
I know how you feel inside,
I've been there before.
Something is changing inside you
--Guns N' Roses

A lot of life can happen in three months. A lot of growth, and change, and failure. I wonder if I'll remember how to talk? I don't have that many people I talk to. When I'm not working, I have gone for days without ever speaking, other than to tell my dogs that it's time for bed and to order anonymous take-out food. I hope that I do better than that this time through.

I've planned a few things to keep myself engaged in the world while she's gone. I'm going to a football game (the oblong kind played in the US, not the round-balled kind played in the rest of the world) I have a few talks to give. I might go ride a new toy -- I bought a touring-focused motorcycle.

SL will be different when she comes back. Or, at least, I hope so. She is going to learn and grow and show herself that she can. Everyone should know that, and I don't begrudge her the opportunity.

In fact, I can think of several people to whom I'd happily tithe from my self-confidence, and she's one.

Living in a different country, facing new work challenges, meeting new people who are different, and think differently. Such a terrific way to make a new start, to mark a new epoch like a layer of ash atop a city in an archaeological dig.

But, change is scary. To me, anyway. When people talk about change, we often speak of caterpillars changing into butterflies. I think most people would call that an improvement -- a multi-legged worm-like creature goes into a shell, and comes out a lovely flying animal. The animal is chased by little girls, in the same way we change unicorns and rainbows and peace.

It's all well and good to say that a butterfly is better than a caterpillar. But it isn't, intrinsically. It's just different. Have you ever watched a caterpillar walk? It's a symphony of harmonic motion between legs and body that is perfectly adapted to its environment. For those of you in the South, go outside, find a caterpillar, and let it walk on your arm. Feel the slight stickiness of its feet, the softness of its skin, the way it knows you aren't right for it.

It is, in and of itself, a work of perfection.

So why do we assert it's better after the cocoon? It's not better, perhaps, just different.

Of course, change -- and its kissing cousin, innovation -- are required for most of us, in varying degrees. Companies that thrive innovate heavily, and life as we know it is a product of millennia of incremental innovation (a.k.a., evolution). I'm a big fan of change, and yet, I recognize its appetite for destruction.

Most evolutionary changes result in death.

Think on that the next time you praise change.

In the pool halls,
the hustlers and the losers,
used to watch 'em through the glass.
--Bob Seger

When I first moved to the Bay Area, I was alone, and lived in an apartment just off of Market Street, in a little neighborhood called "Hayes Valley". I would go to work early and often come back late. There was a little mediterranean place across the street that was open late. Most nights, I'd get takeout hummus, pita, and dolmas after work, then go back to the apartment to read a bit and eat.

But lots of nights, instead of going to bed like a normal person who has to get up in time for market open, I'd go out onto the streets of San Francisco and walk. I loved to watch the people, and laugh at what happens at dark, in the hypothetical anonymity of darkness. I'd see the drug deals, and the attempted ones, with some mixture of humor and distaste. I'd see the homeless people following the winds to some warm corner to sleep. I'd see the streetwalkers trying to locate their next mark. I'd smell food and sweat and urine, hear music and laughter, and feel quiet.

It's hard not to feel alive in a city of walking sleeves. The thing I love most about San Francisco is the night, and the darkness, and that which lives at night.

Now, the weather? That, I don't love.

But I think the part I found most compelling was the fact the the players changed, each night, but the play never changed. I saw different dealers and Johns, and different people staggering out of the strip clubs, and different police officers. But the story line never changed. A foolish consistency, perhaps, but a endless chain of verses, slightly out of phase, like a campfire song. Always different and yet unchanging. Every night I could count on it being the same, and yet fascinating. It was comforting.

The term "sleeve" comes from those Morgan books I was telling you about a few days ago. The ones BF recommended to me. The main character is a guy named Takasi Kovacs; he's consistently annoyed that people say Ko-vacks, instead of Ko-vach. In this world, your memories and consciousness are stored not just in your brains -- the wetware -- but also in little computers called "stacks" that are implanted in your neck, inside the spine. If your body dies, you can dig out the stack, put it into another body, and, voila, "you" are back.

Because your body can change during your "life", they call them sleeves. Get it? You change them like you change clothes. Neat, huh?

And yet, it's not so clean and neat as that. When you come back, you are in some other body -- does your lover still love you? How much of love it mental, how much spiritual, and how much chemical? If it's chemical, then your love will not be in love with "you", but rather in love with some combination of you and your sleeve.

Oops, that could be tough on your relationship, after you are re-sleeved.

And when you come out from being "re-sleeved", your loved ones won't even recognize you. What if you decide that you want a new life? You can keep walking past them, and they will never know which of the unrecognized strangers was the husband/father/brother that just skipped out on his family.

And, if you can live forever, essentially, would you want to? Is there a point where you know too much, and have seen too much, and can no longer pretend to be part of the human race? Over time, I should think your personality would change, edges worn down and polished by the sands of time. But, isn't our weakness that which makes us human? A diamond is lovely, but cold, and loveless.

All in all, these books aren't the best reading I've ever done, but they certainly are disturbing.

Are we (we are)?
Are we (we are) the waiting?
This dirty town
is burning down in my dreams.
--Green Day

I have one and one-half hours left in my return from halfway around the world. So far, we drove an hour to the Cape Town airport to catch a two hour flight to Johannesburg. From Jo'burg, we flew 9 hours to Dakar, in Senegal, where we refueled, changed crews, and got sprayed for insects. Then, back into the air for another 9 hours to Washington Dulles. Two hours, and several customs agents later, we climbed onto a United flight to SFO. Right now, we are somewhere over the upper Midwest. It's clear out the window, and I can see snow on the rough hewn peaks -- not mountains, I don't think we are over the Rockies, but somewhere that has rock outcroppings that emerge from the snow. The sun is very bright and the sky very blue. I can see roads and the edges of parcels of land. But I can't see any buildings -- almost as if man had cut up the land and then left.

SL is sitting next to me reading her vacation book -- and laughing out loud every couple of pages. I guess she's recommending "Eat, Pray, Love" to everyone around us who is trying to watch the movie. I think I shall read it. The guy on the other side of me is watching a marathon of "Office" episodes, and hasn't laughed once. You make the call.

This trip marks the end of one stage of "us". Hopefully, we won't reunite re-sleeved, walking by each other, pretending not to notice. And hopefully we will both prefer butterflies to caterpillars.

I've made a healthy career hoping for the best, but planning for the worst. I'm too good at it; want to know a list of everything that might fail? Give me a call.

But I require hope, and faith, and trust. And the Angel's bright wings over me and the rest of the weary world.

Here's to a better 2008, to peace, to love, and to caterpillars and to butterflies, both.

And my old friend
will you shelter me from pain?
In return, I'll bring you Ireland
--Nanci Griffith