The Other End of Sunset

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

If you don’t want to say it, you probably shouldn’t do it.

Well, she's shaking that thing
Boy, she makes me sing
Whoa, Black Betty,
--Ram Jam
Well, I think I should hurry up and post this – I’ve been working on it for about three weeks. Seems that I’ve lost my ability to craft prose quickly, without thinking. I used to sit down at my keyboard – usually on a roughly one-hour flight – and craft a 2,000 word post that was interesting (to me, anyway), and often heartbreaking.

Not so true anymore – I labor over each word as if it were being forced to the surface, a rock driven into my skin by a bad bike accident that requires pressing on the skin, over and over again, to get out. It still feels good when it comes out, but it somehow feels less… immediate.

But I hope the result is still worth reading. The posts these days feel different – first of all, I write less about Jeanne. It’s not that I don’t miss her – I do, believe me. It’s just that the pressure of those stories has lessened – I prefer now telling stories live. I’m no longer traumatized by the trauma someone feels hearing Jeanne’s story. And I find myself telling more happy stories about her – her laugh, her perspectives, her thoughts, her love. But I think telling the heartbreaking stories here was compelling for readers and helped me. So, thank you. Really.

I have spent lots of time on planes lately. I flew Lufthansa back from Dubai recently. Ironically, for an airline that prides itself on punctuality and performance, my seat didn’t work – and seats aren’t really that complicated, I think. And despite the fact that they had reserved a gluten-free meal for me, they insisted on giving my bread with it. After telling each of them that I couldn’t have it, and being ignored, I finally took a piece so they’d stop bothering me! I guess that I should have expected a singular focus on giving me some kind of bread, because my pre-wrapped, and totally taste-free gluten-free meal had jam inside the plastic wrap. I can’t imagine what they thought I was going to put the jam on when they wrapped the meal, but, given that it was there, I suppose that the flight attendants were compelled to give me something to coat with the sugar derivative.

We flew out directly over Palm Island, just offshore from Dubai. It’s a manmade island, in the shape of a palm tree. Apparently, houses on the … fronds? … are quite expensive and lovely. I was just blown away by being in a 747, looking out the window, and seeing obviously recognizable shapes – it’s akin to looking at a satellite picture of the Great Wall and realizing that you can see a man-made object from space; this wasn’t from space, but it was from a couple of miles up – and the shape was clearly visible. I don’t know why it stuck me so much, but it did.

Many things struck me in Dubai. Dubai is lovely – it feels like Vegas-meets-Disneyland. I stayed at a hotel that was really nice, immense, and made to look like an old Arabic construction. Yup, made to look like one – but it was brand-new construction. In fantasyland, you have to maintain appearances. There was a river running through the resorts and you could take a boat from one part of the hotel to another. I don’t know which part of Arabic fantasyland yielded a boat system; nonetheless it was there. So, yes, we rode it – or should that be “road” it – to dinner one night. It was cold, and the driver didn’t dock the boat – instead he just crashed it into the pier and we hopped out – scary, and I bumped my head, but it was fun, I have to admit.

There’s lots of money there, consistent with the Vegas theme. But there is no oil in Dubai, proper, so they are investing heavily in infrastructure, technology, and financial services. And they are quite liberal in their attitudes – I didn’t feel any judgmental feeling from anyone. Many times I saw a woman covered from head to toe in traditional Muslim dress (traditional for her region and flavor of religion, but covered) walking through a mall with a woman in a micro-miniskirt and high heels (looking for all the world as if she were going for a very hot night outing in Vegas). No tension between them was visible; and, sometimes, they were close friends – just with different dress codes. One of my friends that I met there wore the traditional Muslim headscarf – but she didn’t start wearing it until she was in her 30’s and didn’t feel that she was better than others who didn’t wear it. It was her choice, and she was comfortable with others making different choices.

I’m not sure many of our Christian faiths are so comfortable with choice – and I am not sure how many people believe that the Islamic faith is pretty kind, in general. For example, there is a religious rule that forbids cutting someone out of the conversation – you all know the feeling, right, of being the “third wheel”. You are ignored by the people talking, and feel like a loser. That’s against the Islamic religion, as my friend Mo taught me.

I wonder if kids in Islamic faiths who have that model are kinder and gentler to others? I know that I was profoundly shaped by being ignored, or receiving only negative attention. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Yes, yes, I’m sure some of you are now reacting badly to my praise of Muslims. But to judge the entire Islamic tradition by the terrorists is, I think, to judge all of Christianity by white supremacists who use the religion for their own evil purposes.

I got you under my wheels now
--Alice Cooper
I think sometimes people focus too much on the outward look of things, and allow themselves to be seduced by simple, bumper sticker versions of complex issues. I’m a big fan of bumper stickers as vision statements – but they, on purpose, ignore a lot of complexity. I think we might be better off taking some time to understand what’s under the surface.

Most Muslims aren’t terrorists, and the Christ I understand doesn’t believe that whites are better than others.

// Side note: Speaking of the Christ I understand, thanks to C & DF, I got to watch Palm Sunday mass in the Vatican in Rome. Wow – I didn’t expect it to be so impactful. It was. Amazing – and the Pope is way more conservative than I believe. But still… //

I often ride BART to work. I’m partial to ripped jeans, slip-on kicks as shoes, and T-shirts. I have a particular warm coat that is a funny color, with strange patterns – it looks like a school Home Economics project gone horribly awry. I was wearing such an outfit the other day, walking down the platform to the train door I wanted, listening to my music. As I walked, I noticed a woman in line; as I walked toward her, she edged away, as if to hide from me. As if I were a threat. Strange, but … whatever, sorry lady.

Ironically, many of the same people catch the same train day after day. A few days later, I showed up again at the train; this time I was wearing nice Italian loafers, slacks and a bright colorful button-down shirt. And a smooth leather jacket. Yup, you’ve guessed the end of this story already, haven’t you.

I saw that same woman again, and she didn’t shy away from me this time.

Nothing had changed – other than my clothes. And my hair was probably dirtier, but who knows. I think it’s sad that we focus so much on the outside looks, but I guess it’s a good heuristic. Just an unfortunate one. Do you think the woman recognized me the second time? Or perhaps, will she recognize me the next time she sees me in my ripped clothes and decide I’m not a threat?

And if I’m a threat, I’m still a threat wearing expensive Italian shoes. Think about it.

He said "Practice Electra,
You might need it someday.
Practice laughing
at my jokes
Practice crying
when I leave I you."
--Megan Slankard
I ran into an old friend on a flight back from Austin recently. I was at South by Southwest – a cool conference that captures the connections between the web and film and music. I was there to give a brief talk... and to go to parties, I guess. There is a significant party element to SXSW – my company threw one, as did just about everybody else.

// Side note, 2: Much of my good thinking time happens at urinals. I’m not sure why that’s true, but it is. I used to do all my best thinking when I was running, but not anymore. I’m not sure this is a good side effect of aging. Regardless, one of the things I think about is the design of stalls in men’s restrooms. I really don’t understand them. They all have locks, but it’s usually impossible to tell whether a stall door is locked or not without pushing on it – which scares the person locked inside. I’ve always wondered why the locks don’t work like they do on airplanes – have the lock turn a sign that says “Occupied” or “vacant”.

Now I wonder no more! In the Four Seasons in Austin, they have exactly that system, so, from a distance, you can tell if a stall is free or not. But the one guy who was in a stall while I was at the urinal didn’t lock the door, and so got… surprised… a few times. Sigh. Anyway. //

One night, we went out dancing – to an 80’s club, appropriately enough. The club was super fun, but several of the people were super-aggro. Really more aggressive than need be. A group of women dressed to go out – and wearing massive wedding rings – came up to one of my friends to ask who we were. Nothing untoward here, none of us were interested, and their husbands were 20 feet away. All good, nobody damaged. One of the women tripped and fell – it’s possible she was slightly intoxicated – my friend helped her get back up. A few minutes later – after they had all wandered off – her husband came over and told my friend “if you touch my wife again, I’ll kick your ass.”

My, my – thank god for Texas hospitality! I didn’t feel like getting into an issue, so I ignored it, and my friend bounced back quickly from the bummed out feeling. But, really, dude, why don’t you keep your wife from tripping, or at least “defend” her in front of her, so she can tell you that you are being a tool. Or, best of all, why not thank my friend for helping your wife?

I was once at a punk show, and a guy had brought his girlfriend into the pit. She wasn’t dressed for it – high heels and a skirt. The guy was trying to keep all the banging off of her, and was doing a great job until he slipped and fell. She had this look of terror on her face that was pretty heartbreaking. So I stepped up to her and put my body between her and the crowd until her boyfriend stood back up. Then I passed her back to him – he said “thanks”, as did she, and we all went back to enjoying the show.
Y’all, if SL trips, I hope you will help her back up.

In the morning
you can tell me your dreams
--Melissa Etheridge
Anyway, my friend and I haven’t seen each other for a long time – a few years. I was sitting on the plane and I saw her walk on. I called her name, and she barely recognized me. I found out later that she had already seen me, and had a hint of recognition, but thought I was some second-tier rock guy. Ironic, actually. Anyway, I ended up spending about half the flight sitting next to her, listening to her talk about her career (which is going well), her boyfriend (also going well), and how her family has changed in the last few years (some have jobs, some are moving away, change happens, I guess).

She hadn’t heard about Jeanne, so I told her the story. I told her about Jeanne’s wake. It made her cry, which I didn’t mean to do.

I just read something in a magazine about a famous author who died of cancer; she was in denial that she was going to die, trying lots of alternative treatments, but was apparently in agony the whole time. She refused to talk about death, apparently; her son felt that this denied him the chance to say goodbye.

Thank you, Jeanne, for giving me the chance to say goodbye. Thank you for being open and honest about your death. Thank you for your amazing grace during a time when so many would struggle, during a time when I did struggle.

Jeanne planned her own service – she picked the music (Elton John, of course) – chose the people who would attend, and selected the format. We served champagne, and cheese. I drank coffee – needed the composure. We all told stories about how she affected our lives. I told the story of how I met her, and the story of how she passed. BF couldn’t bring herself to talk – she’s still embarrassed about that, but there’s no need. Jeanne understands, and knows how you feel. Anyway, the stories ranged from funny to sad to off-beat. That was my girl. Complex.

Great, now I feel like crying again. No wonder my young friend felt like doing so.

Instead of crying, I shall wrap this post up. I’m on another plane, coming back from Europe. I’m on United, not Lufthansa, but, once again, my chair doesn’t work. It is the circle of life’s discomforts, I guess. They attendants brought me no bread this time, though.

Here’s to the coming of spring, and change, and those things which remain the same, reminding us of joy and loss.