Saturday, February 19, 2011

Beginning All Over Again

Now and again, I stop to consider the facts of the life I've lived, including all the facts known only to me, or me and a few others. Of course, no other person can ever fully know what we know about ourselves, but my particular life has taken such strange and unpredictable turns here and there that it might as well be considered fiction.

It's been a life of romance in many senses of the term. Just when things have seemed bleak, a new twist in the plot turns up, surprising even me once again.

I should know better by now.

Very few people would fully believe some parts of my story if I ever should decide to tell them. It would require suspending the usual assumptions about reality and being willing to go down a long path far into the distant past, to another time in a distant place when I was still young.

It was far out in the country. It was a rainy night, to be our last together. We were running through the rain holding hands. She was crying at the prospect that our brief relationship was about to come to its end.

I felt just as bad, but I wasn't crying. I was trying to think. She was a mess; by some conceit or another we had conspired so that she was guiding me back from the house where we had dinner and the place she was staying the night to the place where I was to sleep, across town.

Not a soul was out in the weather but us, dripping with rain.

We ducked into a doorway and I held her. She wanted us to stay right there and for our embrace to never end. She asked me to love her right there in the middle of the night in the middle of the rain.

I wouldn't. I couldn't. This seemed way too risky, me a foreigner in a small town where everyone would know who I was, if only indirectly. The porch light was on; we were exposed.

She shuddered in my arms; I stroked her wet black hair, and moved her bangs back from her face as I gently kissed her.

We stayed like that for a while; then I insisted on taking her back to the place she was staying because I knew how to get to "my" place without further help. I reminded her that this was not our last moment; there would be tomorrow when she took me to the local airport.

That would be the place for our last goodbye.


Memories like this one, still so vivid many years after my own dark hair turned grey, then white, and after the lines of age started creasing my face, are parts of the stories never told.

Stories that I always assumed were safely tucked away in the past, where they could be remembered fondly, like the smiles in old photographs or the sounds of voices that no longer can be heard among the living.


But the past doesn't always rest in peace. Sometimes, against all odds, it reappears. When this happens, it may be because it never actually got finished. Something remained undone, unsaid, unfelt even. Something remained to resurface, to happen again.

Now it is another night, half a world away, and again it is raining. But this time there will be no tears, because this time there need be no final goodbye. An unfinished chapter in our story has asserted its right to continue.

That's the way of a narrative. That's the way of romance. Stories don't end when it's convenient for them to do so; they continue with their own purpose in mind. No one would believe this story; no one.

And who can say if it even is real? Maybe all is fiction. Only the nights know, and the rains. Two nights, two rains, two people.

And thus the story goes on...


Friday, February 18, 2011

Common Ground Emerging?

While Watson, the smart computer, has been kicking human butt in Jeopardy, people at Google were Tweeting their congratulations to Watson's maker, IBM, and IBM Tweeted back ts thanks.

If we haven't already entered an age where machines are more in control than humans, than we probably won't know it when it happens. I'm comfortable with what's happening; making technologies smarter is in our collective interest for all sorts of reasons.


Against the odds, the political environment inside the U.S. may be shifting to a state where necessary cuts in the federal budget may actually get the honest debate it deserves. The main reason this seems possible is that a large group of Tea Party Republicans have voted to cut military spending, thereby breaking with GOP tradition in the House.

That kind of independent streak could provoke some Democrats to break with members of their party who resist any cuts to government spending.

I'm more sympathetic to those who favor cuts, although I do not support zeroing out critical social programs. Rather, I'd like to see defense spending reduced significantly, and redundant, multi-agency social programs that reek of inefficiency cut as well.

President Obama is leading the latter effort; presumably Republicans will support him in this effort to trim government and make it more effective.

The ideological extremes are simply based in fantasy or ignorance. This political system does not in any way resemble socialism, nor are those trying to cut federal spending necessarily trying to destroy government. Both sides need to explore where they can locate common ground.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin protesters have adopted Egyptian tactics, even as other Middle Eastern populations agitate for change. The Madison protests may auger the return of left-oriented demonstrations due to the budget cuts championed by Tea Partiers.

There never has been a monopoly on public outrage by right or left. People sincerely worry about losing services that provide some semblance of a safety net for the most vulnerable; other people sincerely worry that we cannot simply spend ourselves into an unending state of indebtedness to China without severely weakening our national security.

As with most complex questions, rather than a right or wrong answer, this government spending controversy is not so much an ideological matter as a pragmatic necessity. Anyone thinking clearly knows cuts have to be made. The question is how many and to what programs?

And that is a question that deserves an honest debate.


Simple things can improve mood. You know things are better when you walk with new confidence and start smiling more often. Also when the world seems interesting again, even fascinating.

That's a pretty good indication you have turned a corner. And that you've finally started connecting again...


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

West by Northwest

Noon above Washington state.

High over the coast between the Cascades and the Pacific, skimming above a thick cream of clouds, I'm traveling from the home of Microsoft, Starbucks and Puget Sound to the home of Silicon Valley, Peet's, and San Francisco Bay.

Up north they have a penchant for something called Fish Throwing, a truly bizarre tourist attraction. Down where I live we have Cable Cars, a way of getting around that has long passed its prime.

This trip was not simply a jaunt up the coast but a journey back in time -- 28 years to be precise. It was back to a different me, at a relatively tender age, still inexperienced in many ways.

It was not long after the beginning of an era when I circled the globe, year after year, visiting Malaysia (twice), Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan (twice), Australia, Tahiti, Mexico (several times), Costa Rica, Honduras, Bermuda, England (twice), France, The Netherlands (twice), Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Finland, Switzerland, Canada (several times), Russia (newly accessible to Americans), and places I've forgotten.

Gradually, my orientation as an American was transformed more into that of a citizen of the world. This was not a sudden shift but a continuation of a process that began during my years a decade or more earlier in the Peace Corps in Afghanistan, and environs (Pakistan, India, Iran, and Lebanon).

It simply became impossible to think exclusively as an American after getting to know so many others from different cultures with different traditions, ideas and orientations. The world was an exceedingly complex place, filled with nuances of culture and habit that would never be able to be translated into the arbitrary segments of partial reality captured from any one national or linguistic perspective.

Languages did not translate, not perfectly, much was lost in the process or never even mutually comprehended. I worked with translators all over the world, attended meetings and gave speeches and gathered information for articles and books. In the process, I impressed myself not with how much I was learning, but at how much I never would be able to learn.

The world was too vast for someone like me -- able to visit its far corners only on an occasional, temporary basis -- to ever hope to grasp anything more than its bare outlines.

Nevertheless, I tried to learn what I could, usually by reading the literature and history of places after I had visited them (seldom before), as I seemed to have to had to physically enter a place before my latent curiosity about it could be fully triggered.

Of all of these places, the ones that most captured my imagination were Japan, Afghanistan (of course -- the only foreign country I ever actually lived in), India, England, and the one giant country I've still never stepped foot in (unless you count Hong Kong) and that's China.

Of the literature and history of these particular places I simply never get enough, and it continues to be the case to this day.

All of this came to mind as through the magic of place, friendship and opportunism, I traveled back in time, back to 1983. Without going into details that are best left for another venue, probably a novel, I re-experienced some very important firsts. Yet it all felt as natural as sliding from day to day in my normal routine.

Nothing odd or awkward about having discovered time travel. Not at all. Time, in fact, had left much undisturbed, even as so much else has been transformed radically by the ravages of love, career and happenstance during all of those years in-between.

I suppose this is magic. I guess it is proof that magic exists. I often speculate about magic in my writing, about jinns, tiny creatures, spirits, but I less often experience it first-hand.

The soft rains that clothed Seattle last night gave way to a brilliant sunshine today. Every wave in the Sound outside the hotel window was sunlit as the enormous and lovely body of water danced around in its morning breeze.

Outside the mighty Cascade Mountains rose to the clouds, backlit from the morning sun. The driver of my cab had NPR on the radio. A guest explained how Canada views its role in hosting the Olympics just a year ago now. How the country and its people feel pretty good about it all, except for the colossal housing project disaster that characterizes the former Olympic Village in Vancouver.

The airport features free Wi-Fi. My flight left on time. I like Virgin, the soft purple light. My regular schedule looms; obligations remain, deadlines approach, the every day rhythms of life will resume. But for 24 hours, I went back in time, revisited an earlier me in a more innocent time, a more hopeful time, a time before all that has aged and depleted me had yet gathered as dark clouds on what was then my still-bright future.

All that I still must deal with; the challenges of today, tomorrow, next year and the years ahead bear down on me relentlessly. There is no time for relaxing; this is no country for an old man.

But now I know about time travel, maybe the way will be eased ever so slightly. Plus there's one other cliche that can be now put to rest -- you can never go back and relive the past.

Turns out that's simply not exactly true. The people who spout these platitudes may not want you to know this; indeed, they may not know it themselves, but you can go back.

That's what I learned, and I'm a better man for it.


Monday, February 14, 2011

What is That if Not Love?

The rains return to the west coast. A gloomy night with silent streets; everyone's in from the cold. A year ago on this date, as I recall, it was warm and conducive to walking around the Mission.

I'm not gloomy, though. What's past is past; I'm on to my unknown future. You've probably heard of Watson by now. That's the computer that is taking on humans in the game of Jeopardy -- a task that requires intelligence, attendance to the subtlety and nuance of language, including elements of humor, metaphor, and odd sayings, like "light a fire under" someone's ass.

I've been monitoring Watson as part of my research into the evolution of technology, including its development of human-like features of intelligence and emotion. In some ways, this may be the biggest story of our time, though one seldom mentioned.

As a species, we may be crossing a threshold -- we may already have crossed it -- whereby our DNA, computer processing power, and mutations both physical and technical will be yielding a new species, essentially, one that is combination of man and machine.

If by some chance scientists can perfect a machine that can fall in love with a human and stay in love, our sorry species will be finished. I'm not talking about blow-up dolls here, but if I were I would recommend the movie, Lars and the Real Girl.

No, I am talking about what Jungians consider the mythological underpinning of the Western notion of love -- the story of Tristan and Isolde. I won't bother to recount that ancient tale here, because thanks to Google you can find out more than you would ever want to know about it without my help.


Somebody said something to me today. It was "Happy Valentine's Day." The guy who said it is a contractor, a carpenter by trade, a sweet man who rents a garage nearby. It startled me for a moment, not the wish or not because he's a man but because I doubted anyone would say that to me today.

In fact, a number of people have, and I cherish every one of them.

The guy who said it first, though, is the one who broke through my defense system. You see, when anniversaries of special times with another who has left me come around, my moods tend to to nosedive. In order to avoid any reminder that what I did last year is not what I will do this year I build an emotional cocoon around myself.

Does that make sense?

I avoid the usual suspects, the people who will say it, not mean it, and make things worse in the process.

But my friend, when he said it, actually touched my heart. I said the same words back to him and then he called out, as we both scurried inside from the rain to our separate venues -- "love in all of its various forms."

Think about that. Love in all of its various forms.

When you go out of your way to help someone in need, what do you call that?

When you sense that a person is lonely and you call them, what is that?

When you are on the street and you pass someone who seems to be in pain, and you offer your nicest smile, what is that?

When someone you know has lost a loved one and you try to comfort them, what is that?

When you have bit more of something than you need, and you give it to someone who has a bit less than they need, what is that?

When you see a stranger having trouble crossing the street and you take his or her hand and guide them to safety, what is that?

When on a bus, safely in your seat, a person gets on who clearly should not be trying to stand up in such a place (if you've ridden a San Francisco bus you know what I mean) and you stand up to give it to them, what is that?

When a child approaches you, and you sense that child's vulnerability, even if you have no idea what precisely the issue is, and you comfort that child, what is that?

When the person you think you love above all others has to go, has to leave you, has to pursue her own dreams apart from you, and you set her free, what is that?

When someone comes back, downtrodden, disappointed in their new life, and asks for your help, what is that?

When someone you have irretrievably lost faces a sudden new challenge and you decide to show up and help out, what is that?

When someone asks you to stay silent, to not contact them because they are recovering from their involvement with you and trying to move on, what is that?

When a person who has broken your heart finds new love and you somehow find the strength to wish them well, what is that?

When a person whose dreams have been shattered needs a shoulder to cry on, and you provide it, what is that?

When a stranger, the very first time you meet her, cries on your shoulder about the father who abandoned her, and you try to comfort her, what is that?

When someone is firing you from your job, and you know this will provoke a serious crisis in your life, but you nevertheless help them not feel so bad in that difficult moment, what is that?

When you give something you created -- a story, a painting, a hand-made gift of any sort, to someone who no longer has any time for you, who in fact wishes you would disappear, but who still deserves to hold in her hands something that you made for her in a happier time, what is that?

When a child, whose world has just been blown apart by divorce or death or plain old neglect, seeks your help and you give it, what is that?

When the day comes that you meet an ex-lover, and she is defensive because she has moved on and you haven't yet, but you remain strong and pretend everything is okay, what is that?

When you find something someone has lost, and you know it means a lot to them so you make sure you get it back to them, what is that?

When you have a professional talent or skill and someone is hurting, hurting real bad, and you believe that by devoting hundreds of your precious hours over many years for free in order to help alleviate that pain you do so, what is that?

When you are at the bedside of a dying person and they are having trouble letting go so you speak, with all of your heart, "It's okay. You can go now. We understand," what is that?

When you break through your own reservations and contact a person with whom you have had a bad ending, what is that?

When at the end of a long and difficult and very lonely day, you decide to keep going, at least for one more day, because of all of the people, even if they cannot say so, love you and you know it, what is that?

When, you regain your power and you once again sit in a position of authority or fame or wealth or all of the other trivial pursuits we all seem to need, and you use that power for good, what is that?

When, despite all of the evidence, you somehow believe that there still can be a happy ending to your own story, what is that?

You tell me.