Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway. – Mother Teresa
June is Gay Pride month. The San Francisco parade has been cancelled this year and that’s a shame. I have colorful memories of that brilliant cavalcade: the vibrant floats and flamboyant dance troupes and butch bikers tattooed up in black leather and blue denim. Loud and proud.
I was called into a group-wide meeting one morning while working at Livermore Labs back in the 80s. Our area supervisor announced (paraphrasing) that from this point forward John should be addressed as Joanne and will be dressing accordingly. Expect female attire and makeup. She’ll also be using the ladies’ toilets. Any questions?
This coming out was one of the most startling and bravest things I’d ever seen. The John I had known was a burly guy’s guy and husband with kids. To be considered for reassignment surgery he first needed to live full time for a year as Joanne. I couldn’t imagine the courage it took to share that decision with family, friends, and now coworkers.
We all have our closets. We perform on an open stage and let our hair down with the cast and crew when the curtain falls. A very few good friends get invited back to the dressing room, but then there is the closet. I’m hoping that I’m not the only one with a scary closet.
There are few resentments worse than feeling like a fraud, of being inauthentic. Real honesty requires a precarious journey from closet to stage in full drag, and that can be a tough walk. The good news is that as we get older this gets easier. A certain “let the chips fall where they may” settles in with age. The urgencies that guided our earlier years – career and vows and status – become the lesser priorities to authenticity; leaving this world with a history that reflects our truest selves.
Martin Whatson: Behind the Curtain
Being honest with oneself is of course step one, and often the most difficult of conversations. I lived most of my adult years in San Francisco and didn’t bat an eye (or even a heavily mascaraed lash extension!) at people being true to their sexual and gender orientations. But professional orientation was a different beast altogether. It is convenient to suppress misgivings over career choices when those positions are filling the bank account and feeding the ego. Damn I’m special! I was front and center of that line but in good company, particularly in the investment banking and venture capital industries.
There’s no shame in pursuing pay over passion when young and in one’s prime income-generating years (I’m happy to debate this over a glass of rosé). There’s great dishonor when continuing to shelter in the closet post mid-life, to oneself primarily. What you do, where you live, and whom you love. The legacy you leave. Are you getting these right? Are the what, where, and with whom choices you are making now reflect the most authentic and beautiful you? Will your eulogy be delivered by people whom loved you most, reflecting on things for which you wanted to be celebrated, in a setting that defined your spirit?
That is a lot to consider.
A final note. I founded the Interprize Group in 2013 to help people, mostly at 50 plus, pursue grand life ambitions of deep personal meaning. If I’m being honest, I’ll admit to using these workshops as much for self-discovery as for guiding others. Authenticity and purpose are 2 topics that get a lot of attention in these workshops. For the past 3 years I’ve been focused on a grand ambition of my own and the workshops have been on hold. We are offering a new and completely redesigned Life Leap Workshop this October in Provence. You can find more information here. If you are curious to know more please get in touch and we’ll set up a time to chat. Let’s get you out of the closet.
It’s mid-May and those touchstones of our pre-Covid quotidian are reemerging from this long winter of lethargy and isolation. Cafés are hosing down their terrace tables, the boys of summer are taking the field, pétanque parties are back on the Provence calendar (bring your rosé passport), and one feels encouraged to consider summer travel plans, maybe. We’re not yet back to the bis(ous) in France, but air kisses are pollinating the breeze.
Everyone is ready for the world to turn again, but part of me is suffering a post-pandemic partum blues. New rituals and routines were grudgingly adopted, and now, to my surprise, I’m resisting their repeal. How about you?
Most of us entered wartime kicking and complaining. The masks and curfews and comatose streets where a tiresome affront. Then something unexpected unfurled: my adaption slowly evolved from noisy surrender to covert embrace.
Four things in particular have grown on me: hygiene hysteria, hermitude, travel restrictions, and a damn good cocktail. Let’s take a closer look.
I’ve gained a new appreciation of protection against bugs, adopting a certain compulsive prophylaxis. Start with the mask.
I hated the mask at first. The fogged-up sunglasses; the hindered breathing; the constant “damn it, forgot my mask again.” Then a realization: that cloth cover was the best antiaging solution in my arsenal! The sags and the creases and the two-tone lifetime tan, all beautifully concealed, at least for that brief walk about town or trip to the grocery. I lose 10 years when masked up and love it.
I also appreciate that layer of discretion when slipping through the back alleys of Aix avoiding the predictable paths of this person or that. We all have those days, right? One gains an appreciation of the burka. There are days when I wouldn’t mind having a big black sack hanging in the closet. The Covid mask/sunglasses/wide-brimmed hat combo: perfect for a Howard Hughes steal through town.
Antiseptic hands are another new thing. I was raised on a farm in rural Pennsylvania and my childhood hands were perennially dirty; my bare Huck Finn feet even worse. Chasing salamanders along muddy creeks is blissfully messy. I’ve never given much thought to the germ history of stuff I was touching. Jostling with strangers on the Paris metro or forwarding hotdogs on down the row at the ballpark? Never a problem. I was firmly in the camp of it’s all good, I’m boosting my immunity. Now I travel with a small gel bottle, head to the sink after outings, and am setting perimeter strategies for the café life after Covid. I didn’t see that coming but accept that it’s just good practice, pandemic or no pandemic. Old dog, new tricks.
Covid put a serious dent into our social lives. The indoor seatings were taped off, then the terrace tables pulled up. We resumed in our homes until gatherings over 6 were banned. Okay, surrender.
And then, … I didn’t really miss it. The raucous dinner parties and late-into-the-evening drink ups, the restaurant tabs, the home turned upside down and head inside out while washing dishes at 3 am. I was happy to give all of that a break.
This reversal had mostly to do with the temporary nature of confinement. I knew that we’d be sitting along a leafy boulevard lined with sycamores in Aix sipping rosé or flocking to this home or that beach soon enough again. So, I decided to embrace the hermitude and to quote Katy Perry, I liked it.
There’s a Lebowski appeal to stained sweatpants and frayed sweaters, dusty homes, hair gone to seed, sole control of the playlist (Siri, play the Bay City Rollers again), pedestrian wine in 5 liter boxes, locked in by dusk, books in bed by 9, lights out by 10. There was time for curiously odd things like tarot readings and kimchi canning; activities and a comportment that I wouldn’t entertain should others be visiting regularly. Serene solitary confinement.
The travel ban is winding down and curfew rolling back in France. The apéro season is upon us. Confinement is ending, and I’m mostly ready. But the hermit has had run of this place for over a year now and not going back in the bottle graciously.
The air travel experience has become insufferable. We all put up with it but who enjoys it? Some people apparently. Airlines were offering trips to nowhere during lockdowns; the flights were popular.
When it comes to finding points unknown (or known) I love being there, just not going there. A road trip is the exception. Lockdowns and quarantines provided a convenient excuse for avoiding that entire cattle call experience: boarding pass and ID here, now this slow queue, shoes off and everything in that bucket (“c’mon people let’s keep it moving!”), another line and more ID, the duty free mall and overpriced food, then a long sit at the crowded terminal, another cattle chute at the gate, boarding pass and ID again, buckle up and elbows in for the next few hours, try not to pee, … then it starts again at arrival.
No excuses were needed for avoiding travel these past many months. I missed people a lot, particularly my kids in faraway San Francisco, but not the process of getting there. I’m stepping back in the wading pool tepidly with a train trip to Paris in June and then we’ll see. I’m bribing the kids to visit me in Aix. As to that deep dive into a wide body across the the big blue sea? It’ll happen, don’t rush me.
And now to a damn good cocktail
Curfews and lockdowns force a reconsideration of one’s attitude on personal temperance. Some of us find all of that alone time a caution to curtail the evening tipple(s). Others find it an excuse to widen the guard rails.
I considered the abstemious option and locking the wine cave at first but was advised against it by a sage friend. A third option was to explore new directions, reasoning that the intake was neither more nor less, just different.
Hence, cocktails entered the equation. The art of preparing a good cocktail is no different than the secret to kitchen confidence: quality ingredients prepared with good tools and a lot of love for those whose company you most enjoy. Staying in season is key to both. The cold winter greys inspire Russian vodka creations comrade; the fresh spring greens calls for British gin old bean.
So, Moscow Mules have yielded stubbornly (it’s the mule) to strawberry gin and tonics (recipe here) as the weather warms and local berries fill the market stalls in Provence. Strawberries are in particular abundance and cheap at the moment, their perfume an irresistible siren seduction that demands purchase. My limes come from Maïtaï, who mans (womans?) a produce table at the Place de Richelme on Tuesdays. Anything she touches is as blessed as her sunny smile. The final key for me is the cocktail shaker from C&D Tools: an heirloom American-made bar tool offered as a gift from Kris, the company’s founder. How I became friends with this American diplomat stationed in Kinshasa, DRC is another strange tail for a future essay.
This is the time to consider your own permanent adoptions after a season of compulsory adaptation. Good luck with reentry. It’ll be fine, get out there!
Play this Song: This is the End, The Doors
Make this Drink: Negroni (to my friends suffering in Italy): Campari, vermouth, gin.
When traveling to intriguing places I enjoy writing real-time observations of the trip in short dispatches. My much-loved San Francisco is a guaranteed source of fascinating discoveries – always – and I’ve recorded them often in my Dispatches from the Magic Kingdom. When in Beirut last October I chronicled the fall of a government and pulse of the streets with a short series.
For this journey I’m at home – for an extended lockdown in France – and again facing an intriguing moment. We’re all facing moments of the unknown now. I am writing observations on a frequent basis for the next few weeks, mostly short, to provoke readers to share your own experiences. It is a healthy outlet in an unhealthy situation. … And if I don’t find something creative to vent my energy things could soon get ugly for the cat.
I’m posting these dispatches in a bubble-down system, latest essays posted at the top.
spring has sprung on me and it’s sweeping me off my feet
I saw my first oriole of the spring one sunny morning last week. Koiche Kunibe was standing in the center of a very deserted Place de Richelme enjoying a cigarette. He is the chef and owner of Naruto – my favorite Japanese restaurant in town – and let me know he’d be opening the doors for take-out the following day. Hallelujah.
In the past week an increasing number of shop owners in Aix have been getting creative and offering services without violating the lockdown. Limited hours and doorway exchanges perhaps, but it’s a welcome sign of thaw in the winter ice. Wine caves and cheese shops, bookstores and magazine kiosks, fruit and vegetable stands, and a few restaurants like Naruto are back in limited business. My good friend Hervé had his butcher shop on rue d’Italie humming this morning for the first time in 5 weeks and a line was forming.
If you grew up in a cold weather climate then you understand the deep stir of spring fever, particularly as a teen. Euphoria is the word. The mercury breaks 60°, the coats come off, car windows down, radios on, girls on the street, the boys of summer in spring training. You spot that first red breasted oriole swooping through the yard. The build up of anticipation after a long winter freeze is overwhelming.
The shelter-in-place lockdown France lifts on May 11 and it’s easing elsewhere as well. Time will tell if the timing was right or wrong. But with temperatures climbing and the trees turning green, the pressure to be outside and enjoying some level of social reconnection is swelling.
My 1996 album Eskimo in the Sun was a paean to the ache for personal release. The song Come With Me, in particular, slipped off the winter shackles. The burning to do anything, go anywhere, be anyone. The fact is we all accept obligations and compromises, like lockdowns when plagues roam the land. But the freeze is melting, trickle by trickle, and we’ll be sharing a glass with friends over a socially-distanced table soon. Hang in there.
Be safe, be well. April 30, 2020
Where Were You?
About a third of the world’s population is in some degree of lockdown because of the coronavirus. We are experiencing it globally through the news and locally through our various hellos to neighbors and friends. How we see it now, and how we remember it in the future will differ. While we are all impatient for a return to normalcy – whatever that means going forward – we’ll look back at this moment with selective memories of fondness and connection.
I’ve been through two natural catastrophes that upended life for days to weeks. In both cases the sights, sounds, and smells remain vivid, and the passion to share these memories with others who were there, then endures. Where were you?
Hurricane Agnes swept through the eastern seaboard of the US in 1972, killing 128 people and wreaking its heaviest damage in Pennsylvania, mostly through flooding. My hometown Newport, which slopes down to the normally languid Juniata River, experienced water levels into the second stories of houses. Carp and catfish were swimming through the windows and rotting days later on many a muddy living room carpet. It was a mess.
A few families took up residence in our large farmhouse, safe and dry on a ridge above the town. Dinners for 20 or more were common and I can still hear the kitchen full of moms making flood pudding and anything else delicious they could scrape together for this temporary encampment of Agnes refugees. Sharing their stories of escape. Troubled about what they were returning to.
Seventeen years later I was sitting in our apartment in San Francisco when my chair started to vibrate queerly, and then the building frame began to heave and rumble. The roar of an entire city in geophysical convulsion was deafening. From my 3rd story perch above Noe Valley the seismic waves rolling through town could be seen. Unnerving. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake left 63 dead and caused $10 billion in damage.
San Francisco was out of power for a few days, which meant cold meals, candle-lit nights, and a transistor radio. I had made a large batch of chili the day before, so at least my girlfriend (and later wife) Alexandra and I had plenty to eat, that with cold canned soup. The Dubliner Bar on 24th Street was open that first evening, the owner Vince Hogan making approximate change with cash out of a cigar box, and everyone eager to be with others and share their stories. Where were you?
With both disasters lives were disrupted for extended periods. Those hallmarks and comforts of daily life were thrown into serious disarray, and after the first few days of novelty people were eager to get back to normal routines. Irritations emerged, and longing for the way things had been before the big event.
I think back to those moments with fondness now. Conversations between long time residents of San Francisco often turn to, “were you here in ’89?” It creates a bond. Strangers love to share recollections of disastrous communal experiences like old warriors comparing battle scars.
I don’t want to minimize the scale of the Covid-19 epidemic and horrible impact it’s having on us all. Each day brings a new celebrity infirmity into the headlines and many of us know someone struggling with a positive diagnosis, or worse. But we will get through this. It will mark us. Each of us will be changed by this moment in ways big and small, expressed and suppressed. And for the rest of our lives we’ll be sharing our stories and eager to hear those of others. They will connect us; brothers and sisters in arms. Where were you?
Be safe, be well. April 18, 2020
Witness to a Punctuated Equilibrium
(or How 1 Simple Virus Changed 1 Big World Forever)
A landmark study on evolutionary biology was published in 1972 positing that Darwin was wrong about 1 big thing: Many species – particularly those in isolation – do not evolve slowly and gradually over long evolutionary periods. Rather, many species attain an order of invariable statis that extends over many eons until a single climatic event forces rapid transformations in their biological properties. This theory was called punctuated equilibrium.
We may bear witness to a period of punctuated equilibrium now; not biological, but behavioral. The catalytic event, of course, is the coronavirus.
If you were born in the 20th century you mostly likely adhere to the concepts of self-reliance, consumerism, egoism, and the pursuit of economic prosperity. One could argue that these traits are uniquely American. I would reflect that while they are truly American, most societies have tilted in the direction of open markets, wealth, and consumption as the enabler and primary measures of success (and happiness) in life. Capitalism won, communism lost, now go live it up.
Ideas and products and messages and behaviors
spread like viruses do. Malcolm Gladwell, from “The Tipping Point”
Covid-19 is a climactic event causing sudden changes in our routines and habits. We can’t work, can’t spend, are asked to consider the welfare of others, and now rely on government direction and support. Will it also portend a sea change in our lifestyles and measures of happiness?
Prophesies (getting back to my biblical theme) are the works of wiser women and men than me, but this I have seen in the past 3 weeks:
Family and friends are getting more of our personal time. We are more aware of those relationships that truly matter (but too often consigned to when-I-get-the-time status) and connecting with Zoom calls regularly. The focus is a bit less on me, a bit more on us. That is a good thing.
Work is going virtual. My teaching at INSEAD and the IAU has gone online, and the many of us that can continue to work are getting it done outside the office. This trend is causing a stronger adoption of collaborative tools and investor interest in the companies that invent them. Better work-life balance and fewer cars on the road, and I believe a higher productivity per hour. These are good things.
Artists are creating content and sharing freely. Musicians –
megastars and the lesser known – are holding concerts from their living rooms (check out the NPR list), painters and photographers are giving tips from their home ateliers, and everyone is taking a break from monetizing their art (which is the great destroyer of brave origination). This is a good thing.
The air is clearer. Cars are parked and planes are grounded. Mother earth is getting a sudden reprieve from the CO2 infusion. There is a growing awareness that at least from an ecological perspective, … this is a good thing.
Are these observations sustainable trends or temporary anomalies in our practices and priorities? It is too early to tell, but I’m rooting for possibility #1. I’d love to hear about the positive changes you are adopting or observing in your part of the quarantined world.
As always, stay healthy. April 4, 2020
People Get Ready
People get ready There’s a train a comin’ You don’t need no baggage You just get on board
There is little good news out there. The fever seems to have broken in certain parts of Asia, but everyone is holding their collective breath. Italy continues its descent into hell, with Spain at its deadly heels. The rest of Europe is existing along a spectrum from the unnerving quiet-before-the-storm (Sweden) to full-on war footing (France). The US appears to be gliding along a rudderless spectrum of its own frightening path.
So what to do?
These days of plagues and pestilence have the feel of a biblical moment, whether your book is the Bible, Torah, Quran, or Mother Jones. I’d like to think that there’s a train a coming, rather than the death cart from the Black Plague. You’re probably going to be fine, … but just in case there is something to this rapture stuff, it might be wise to get your books in order, regardless of whether there is a golden ticket with your name on it or not.
There are the obvious steps, like preparing a will and naming an executor. But that’s a morose undertaking for times that are already plenty dark. I will suggest 5 more rewarding, but equally important, assignments that you can start while quarantined at home:
Prepare your top 10 list. These are the songs you want played at your funeral, wake, or rapture. My kids think I’m out of my mind when I bring this up. But are you ready to accept someone else choosing the music that will frame your life and set the tone for your remembrance? I sure as hell don’t and always keep my list updated. It’s a fun reminder of the artists I loved and the music that has so moved me. I won’t share my list here, but the drum cadence that kicks off the party when the doors close and the pews are full will be Don’t Worry Baby, the Beach Boys. Get your list together now.
Read great books. Most of us love to read and find so little time to do it. When I review lists of the best writers or top literature, I’m amazed at how poorly read I am. Blame it on the American public education system. French teens are pouring through Flaubert and Zola. In the past 2 years I’ve started a new regime of mixing one piece of respected literature for each piece of pulp I find entertaining. I like this list compiled by the New York Times, but google around and you’ll find plenty of other rankings. Start reading now.
Listen to great music. When it comes to music, ditto to the previous bullet. How many times has someone mentioned a band or song and you think, now I haven’t listened to them or that album in a long, long time? There are some artists that need to be heard or your life isn’t complete. Right? Can you pass through the pearlies without having been haunted by Schubert’s Ave Maria or mystified by the Beatles A Day in the Life? Your list will depend on what you love, be it the classics, or jazz, or perhaps African funk or rap. Spotify makes it effortless. If rock is your thing then a good place to start is Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It’s a bit dated (2003), so you can throw in your own favorites from the past few years. Start listening now.
Plan your travel. With the beast at our doorsteps, our days, months, or years left to explore may be more limited than previously assumed. Review your bucket list of destinations now, while sitting at home bored, and make a loose calendar of when and where to go. Maybe your interests are international and exotic, or perhaps more local or regional. There is no magic list. When prodded about taking a trip to some far off destination my dad used to respond, why would I want to go there when I haven’t been out to the western corner of Perry County in years? Everyone has their own horizons. Start planning yours now.
Cover your love list. Most of us are negligent at letting our loved ones know that they fall into that category. We often put off telling those people most important in our lives that we love them until it’s too late. It’s a good time to make calls or write letters. Sorry, but emails don’t pass the emotional grade. If you are uneasy with being emotionally open it is enough to just get in touch. They will appreciate the effort and know that is comes from a very warm place. Who’s on your list? Make it now and get started.
Okay, these should keep you busy as the next wine bottle is popped. As always, stay healthy. March 25, 2020
We are the Corona Generation
If you are reading this post then you are officially part of the Corona Generation. It will impact how you comport yourself and mingle with others for the rest of your life. It will help define us as a global cohort for future historians, although that definition – what it means to be part of Generation C – won’t be fully etched and understood for years to come.
My parents were part of the Great Depression Generation and it marked them for life. They weren’t miserly, but clearly tight and selective with their spending.
As an example, our summer family vacation was spent in Ocean City, Maryland each July. One of my most pleasurable and vivid life memories is that drive down Highway 50 leading to the Atlantic seaboard. The roused anticipation at the first sight of billboards advertising beachside hotels and seafood restaurants. The briny smell of the ocean wafting through the rolled-down car windows as we got within perhaps 20-30 miles of town.
We always stayed at the Surfside 8 Motel on 8th Street. It was a fantastic central location for kids: turn left out of the parking lot and it was 3 flipflop blocks to the amazing boardwalk and beach. Two blocks to the right led to the 9th Street pier on the bay, where I would fish every afternoon with a bait box full of frozen squid or blood worms.
Our small efficiency apartment at the motel had a single bedroom with 2 queen beds, so my 3 sisters and mother commandeered that luxury space. My brother and dad took the pullout sofa and I, being the youngest and smallest, camped out on a rollaway cot. The official room limit was 6, so upon arriving in town I would be booted from the car about a block short of the parking lot and told to generally loiter for 30 minutes. And then I could meander confidently onto the property and someone on the balcony would discretely wave me in.
See what I mean? Tight.
How will the Corona Generation be marked by our common experience? Who knows truly? Obviously, a heightened attention to hygiene is being instilled into everyone now. Wash those hands and wipe down the counters. If this scare passed in a month or two it wouldn’t have time to take root in our psyche, but it’s not going to pass quickly and its going to take a toll on people we know and deeply care about. A vaccine is at least a year out and even if effective treatments are uncovered before then, it’s ability to turn lives upside down is going to keep us on edge and vigilant for a long, long time.
I’m an eternal optimist – please forgive me that – but I believe that the social distancing being forced on us now will bring us closer in the end. Board games may make a comeback, a return to touchstones of deep connection like letter writing and regular telephone calls, and we’ll be looking in on our neighbors and loved ones more regularly.
What changes to our routines and behaviours do you imagine – good or bad – as a result of this extended homebound interlude? The Great Depression was a horrific nightmare for families who struggled through, but left most of them stronger and more appreciative of authentic happiness as a result. This is our challenge now.
Stay healthy. March 21, 2020
A Bit of Context, Please
“The last thing I remember of Syria, before we left, was when my mother was taking me from our place to our grandparents. The roads were full of dead corpses. I saw dead people with no heads or no hands or legs. I was so shocked I couldn’t stop crying. … Back at home, I left a friend in Syria, her name was Rou’a. I miss her a lot and I miss going to school with her. I used to play with her with my Atari, but I couldn’t bring it with me. I also used to have pigeons, one of them had eggs, I would feed them and care for them. I’m worried about them, I really pray someone is still caring for them. But here I have a small kitten that I really love! I miss my home a lot. I hope one day we’ll be back and things will be just like before.” – Alia, 7 years old, on fleeing her home in Aleppo, Syria.(Source: the Italian NGO Gruppo Aleimar.)
“They killed all the men, they raped all the women, they stole all our wealth. I don’t know what more they can take from us. They kidnapped nearly all of us (in my village), and killed all but 16 men. Children between 12 and 17 were sent to institutes (to be trained for fighting) and those under 12 stayed with their families. Many women were taken as sex slaves in captivity. In other areas, Yazidi males were forced to convert to Islam and if they refused they were killed. – Rozina, a 22 year old Yazidi woman, recounting her escape from ISIS captivity after her mother, father, and 2 brothers were killed. (Source: Global Fund for Women.)
I made my escape down 7 rue Manuel this morning to the open air markets of Aix-en-Provence. Subdued would be a good word for the pulse of the plaza, with about half of the merchant stalls typically crammed into beautiful Place des Prêcheurs on a Thursday morning missing. But I was still in a land of plenty as I made my rounds, picking up green olives in garlic and basil and a beautiful block of aged cows milk cheese for my apéro late afternoon, 2 pork chops and a dozen spears of fresh asparagus for dinner (just coming into season now). The vegetable and fruits options remained bountiful, bronze chickens were crackling on their roasting racks, the poissonnieres still offering life from the sea of every sort and size.
I’ve never been so happy to linger in a line, soaking up the Provence sun and enjoying a short moment of a beautiful day that will be enjoyed mostly from my apartment window, in my airy 17th century flat with its impossibly high ceilings and terra cotta floor tiles colored in the sun burnt ocre of Provence clay. The internet is working, Netflix options are endless, my piano and guitars at the ready to ward off boredom. When I turn the tap I get fresh potable water, and hot when I want it to be. The fridge is keeping things cold. My bed is comfortable and the comforter clean and warm.
This virus is disrupting our lives and may get really frightening. Some of us will get sick and people we know may die. But let’s try to keep it all in context, okay?
Stay healthy, stay safe. – March 19, 2020
One Sure Bet
(or, Where to Invest in Days of Plagues and Pestilence)
Before him went the pestilence,
and burning fever went forth at his feet. Habakkuk 3:5
It’s mid-March and Covid-19 is sweeping the globe like a ravenous swarm of desert locusts. In the Horn of Africa billions of the real thing are turning day into night and leaving a trail of destruction unseen since the days of Moses.
Just across the Red Sea the world of oil is going bonkers as Saudi Arabia and Russia get into a Mexican standoff over production limits. Crude oil prices fell 30% in the course of just one morning recently, and are at their lowest levels in almost 20 years.
We still have the fire season to look forward and the US just experienced its warmest winter months since 1895. All this and more, to quote a 1977 punk epic from the Dead Boys.
Stock markets hate nothing more than uncertainty. It’s no surprise then that the indexes are lurching severely, plunging down one day and roaring back the next, sometimes over 10% in a single session. So where does one invest in times of plagues and pestilence, when all that is certain is that uncertainty will reign?
You are the best investment to be made in times of uncertainty. The asset of YOU (not a bad market ticker) and its condition are 100% under your control, and you suddenly have a lot of time to focus on enhancements. For starters think about your health, and that comes in 2 flavors. So here are some tips from Bill.
Work out. Find a regime today that fits your interest and home situation and do it regularly. I have a small apartment so a mix of yoga, an exercise wheel, and 2 dumbbells are all that’s possible but needed really to keep me in form, .. despite my beer tab. Toss in a daily walk or run if allowed out of the building. It doesn’t get simpler than that.
Eat well. With restaurants shut down it’s a great time to brush up on your kitchen confidence. Focus on seasonal recipes with locally-sourced ingredients and you can’t go wrong health-wise. And the cooking sacrament is a great stress reliever, so excellent for your mental health as well.
Write: Few things feed the soul better than a letter written tenderly to someone you love or greatly appreciate. It’s even more enjoyable with a good fountain pen in hand, scribbling on high quality parchment paper. I’m blessed to be in France, where boutiques – papeteries – focus exclusively on the materials for this dying art. It’s all on Amazon as well.
Read: Now is the time to tackle that book stack that’s been growing by your bedside, or start building a new one. By the fireplace or propped against your pillows, is there anything more relaxing, … and more nourishing? I’m a supporter of the local bookstore, but in a crunch you have online options.
Pamper: Your budget has suddenly eased up on luxuries like restaurant tabs, bar bills, and travel reservations. Why not divulge in a few guilty pleasures with that new found trove? Go on, before the world collapses around us. High-end chocolate and a good bottle of wine are the low-hanging fruit for me. I’m sure you won’t have to think too hard about it.
Create: Art is a healthy release valve when bored or feeling anxious. Music, painting, drawing, writing: these are just the obvious possibilities. So many more options exist as well. Lost as to where to find inspiration? Just Google around; the options are endless.
Travel: Wait, what? You probably can’t leave town or even your apartment, but you can still explore the world through films, podcasts, and websites. There is an endless array of travel documentaries on Netflix and other streaming media, and this link to museums online has been making the rounds on Facebook recently. Go exploring.
Meditate: It’s proven to calm the mind and lower the blood pressure. Again, there are plenty of resources online if you don’t know where to start. Find a zen ritual that is natural for you, and 5-10 minute sessions are enough to get you quickly addicted.
I’m off to the grocery. At least that’s what I’ll tell the gendarmes should I be stopped. The truth is I’m just dying to get out for a bit. Stay healthy and add your own tips for staying sane. À bientôt.
Suggested Song: Let It Be, The Beatles.
Suggested Drink: Champagne, your choice (it’s almost New Years!)
A brief aside
Few cities are more beautiful than Paris, and fewer still more magical than Paris during the winter holidays. I’m in Paris this week, with the Champs Elysees ablaze in holiday lights, the winding sidewalks through Montmartre strangely clear, tables at the trendy Marais restaurants available, and museum lines, … well there are no museum lines. Merci grévistes!
We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned,
so as to have the life that is waiting for us. – Joseph Conrad
I skated a lot as a kid on the lakes and streams of chilly Pennsylvania. My friends and I loved to play crack the whip out on the ice, forming a chain glove to glove and pulling a wide arc, the person on the far end holding on for dear life as the sweep of the line grew taut and picked up speed. To stay up on 2 blades as you careened around that bumpy winter glass took every bit of energy and concentration, slipping and scraping and fighting to keep your balance core. Exhilarating, terrifying, dangerous.
I left some blood on the ice once, getting spun over a small damn on a frozen creek near home. You have to know when to let go and I held on just a moment too long. Six green stitches to the chin and I was lacing up the skates the next day after school.
I’ve had jobs that paid too much, girlfriends who looked too hot, and vices that felt too good to let go. They fed the ego and enabled myths about who I was and what I deserved. And then would come the realization that this brilliant sun around which I spun was instead an all-consuming black hole, and that great sucking sound was my authentic self being perverted by its massive gravity. More blood on the ice and stitches to the chin.
I find consolation in good company. Many of us suffer from this stubborn reluctance to let go of reckless situations. We know when we’re getting too far over our skates but don’t want the ride to end. As the sweep around whatever dark star is keeping us in orbit picks up speed and the inertial force pulls harder, we hold on even tighter. Ride ‘em cowboy.
The bad news is that we are ego-driven creatures prone to peril, if said ego gets a little tickle. It’s wholly unfair to blame the source: the situation, person, or vice that is wrenching us around. We step in harm’s way and convince ourselves that all is cool. Why the hell did you spin me so close to the dam god dammit? Well why the hell didn’t you just let go?
Exactly. The good news is that we’re not buckled in, we’re holding on. The moment we let go we spin off on a new trajectory of our own making, and it’s 100% up to us to decide when to release the grip. We are in total control of our next moment, next day, next year. Just … let … go.
When a lot of wild coiled up inertial energy is released into straight-line momentum, you are a radiant shooting star on a thrilling new direction. You are at the wheel, no one and nothing is tugging your chain, and a new bearing is completely in your hands. Few things in life are more invigorating than that realization.
So as the new year approaches let me ask you this: is that center of mass that keeps your life in orbit a bright shining star that lights the way and warms your heart, or something more troubling and ominous? If it’s #1 you are truly blessed and if it’s #2, .. well it’s time to let go. Just a little blood on the ice, nothing that a few stitches can’t heal.
If you don’t engage with nature can you care about the environment?
If you don’t engage with people can you care about humanity? Is the self-command of masturbation better than the uncontrolled abandon of sex? (Wait, what?)
Disengaging From Nature
I’m a runner. It serves as equal parts fitness, therapy, and meditation, and my most profound breakthroughs arrive while under the morning skies, putting a few short kilometers on the Nikes. Out early in the world.
Our wild environment – rural or urban – is great inspiration for the creative mind. Sites, sounds, smells, the touch; these things all get our neurons firing, and an engaged brain is a powerful thing.
Distractions are the enemy, particularly of the digital variety. Ear buds and Spotify provide a comforting exile against the natural, unruly world when out in it. Zen epiphanies are blasted off the creative neurons when rock n roll is ringing the ears, as much as I love rock n roll. The lungs at work, a flock of birds against a pale dawn sky, the crunch of autumn leaves under foot, the smell of baking bread before opening hours at the boulangerie. This is real, this is analog, these sensations are stimulating and blissfully out of one’s control.
That we are losing the war against global warming should come as no surprise. Most of us would rather plug in and insulate against the unruly world than soak in its beauty, to fully immerse. When on my run this morning I kept a tally of the ear-budded versus unplugged; the other runners I encountered en route: 4 to 1. The pluggers rule the day; masturbation on the move preferred to a rolling intercourse with nature. And the less we truly appreciate something, the less motivated we are to preserve it.
Disengaging From People
I’m a talker. When I’m at a café and someone intriguing is at the next table I’ll feel an itch to engage. There have been awkward moments but mostly not. My antennae are pretty good at sensing who will welcome a question about that book in their hands or suggestion for a city I’ve overhead them discussing.
Chatty barflies like me are becoming a rarer breed. Heck, friends don’t even talk to the friends at their elbow any more. They busy themselves instead with Instagram photos and Facebook notifications. I’d like to blame the young, and they are the biggest violators of non-engagement, but this social virus has spread to all generations, sadly.
Witness cinema attendance. It’s down 9 percent to this point in 2019 over the same period last year (which was already at a 20+ year low) and Hollywood is hurting. The appeal of Netflix from the sofa is understandable, but the art of àpres-theater debates with friends is being lost. In my hometown of Aix-en-Provence there are a row of lively brasseries just across the large boulevard fronting the Renoir theatre. Le Grillon, La Belle Epoque, Nino’s Café, Les Deux Garçons. All are great options for a glass of wine and the so what did you think? kickoff. I can’t imagine enjoying a fascinating film without that follow-up.
It breaks my heart, this preference for human isolation, for social masturbation. The less we truly value something, the less motivated we are to preserve it. Recent articles in the Atlantic and elsewhere are confirming that interest in sex has fallen sharply amongst the young, in America and most everywhere the Internet is widely available. When we no longer prize intimate engagement, when a Facebook Story on a 5” screen is more satisfying than adventures shared over a couple of pints, when the sofa and remote have replaced a cinema seat and popcorn, … sex, like with someone else?
The downsides of disengagement can be best witnessed through the current leadership in Washington: Trump, Twiddler-in-Chief. He engages the world alone, through a controlled bubble that leaves him oblivious and dangerous. Nature is enjoyed through a limousine window and global warming a hoax. Friends and allies are dispensable and critical alliances dismissed with a midnight tweet. Sex is to be grabbed between the legs (“they let you do it!”), but it’s even better to master your own domain. Okay, he might not believe that, but my gut says he’s not seeing much of Melania in the president’s chamber these days. “Go grab your own thing, Donald.”
As president, Trump leads by example and a depressingly high number of Americans are still happy to follow. Twiddle Nation and isolation. What could possibly go wrong?
When the moon is in the seventh house And Jupiter aligns with Mars
I bought tarot cards while in San Francisco recently. It was an undisciplined move for this disciple of science, but not an impulse buy. I was feeling blocked and sought a shift beyond the unusual to break through. The esoteric arts seemed just crazy enough, and the tarot was an option high on the wackiness scale. I found cards in the Haight (naturally), studied a few books over coffees or beer, started laying out simple readings at the kitchen table, and became enchanted. Here’s why.
I’m not naturally drawn to the mystical arts. I pursued physics in college and studied the theories of giants like Foucault, Einstein, and Bohr. I believe in the scientific method: imagination, observation, and verification built on empirical evidence. Yeah that sounds reasonable, now prove it.
Science does a pretty good job of explaining how things behave; tiny things like quirks and massive things like black holes. The arc of an arrow or locus of a sub-atomic particle? We got that, even when said particle is (almost mystically) in 2 places at once.
What do we do with this knowledge? A lot of good things and a few unimaginably horrible things that counter all best intentions. We heat the winters and cool the summers and tame nature at home while venturing beyond our garden of eden to uninhabitable worlds. We put men on a barren grey moon while burning our own blue paradise to a crisp. We develop an unlimited source of renewable energy and then commit its stockpiles to assuring our own mutual destruction.
So the breathtaking sweep of scientific evolution, from the earliest mathematical foundations of Babylon and Maya to their extrapolations for modelling motion and mass by Newton and Galileo, and through Einstein’s impossibly elegant mathematical reduction that relates that mass to energy through the inviolable speed of light (in a vacuum) has led us to this: perhaps two generations remain before the planet is reduced to a bleached cliff notes version of its former verdant splendor, or we blow ourselves to smithereens first.
So what is science worth if through its application we ominously degrade the quality of our existence or threaten that very existence itself? It’s a question worth considering.
Science: an astounding, evolving compendium of knowledge fundamental to making sense of the many mystifying dimensions of the world micro to massive: physical, chemical, and biological. As for providing the common sense and tools needed to harness this knowledge for the greatest benefit of everyone? Not so good. Some people lose their faith in the preeminence of religion. I’ve lost my faith in the primacy of science.
Unlike science, the mystic arts provide zero utility in understanding the physical world beyond; whether just beyond our touch or light years beyond our sight. They provide an interesting option to understanding the world within, however. Useless at explaining how things behave, but effective (for the open minded) for reflecting on why we behave in the crazy ways we do. And if we hold a clearer lens into our own behavior, perhaps we make better decisions about that behavior.
A stack of colorful cards is nothing more than that. In a vacuum (again with the vacuum) they offer no particular value beyond the pleasure of a game. But equipped with a good guide book, a glass of decent wine, and the help of a friendly ghost (now this is key for me) that stack of 78 cards comes alive in its many dimensions and possibilities.
The true power of the tarot is in its various facets and options for interpretation. Imagine gazing through a magic kaleidoscope that could clarify your past and foretell the future. Twisting the tube sent the many colors of varying shapes and dimensions into unpredictable spins; each shade, size, and trajectory open to interpretation. Now here’s the magic: that interpretation is unique to each viewer. There is no rigid set of scientific guidelines for analysis. Yes, there is a system to the tarot, but what you draw from the colors and spins will be different than what I draw, because our histories and expectations, and the burning questions in our lives are all wildly different.
Kings and queens, princesses and princes, knights and swords and cups and disks and wands, blues and reds and yellows and greys, fire and water, and then throw in the planets. These are just a few of the kaleidoscopic elements of the tarot that drive the meaning of the cards.
I have my own belief system and hope that you do too, … one that offers comfort and solid footing. I’ve mentioned in an earlier essay that I light a candle each evening for my sister and she is present in the moment. I fill her in on my day and invite Cathy to guide the cards that I select and lay out each evening. She has joined the conversation and I (want to) believe is giving the readings a mystical bump here and ethereal tug there, and from her side of the spiritual divide bringing order to the cards I’ve randomly pulled from the deck. If true then I’ve tapped into something powerful, and if not true than I’m just connecting with someone I miss and love. Either way it provides a fun system for pondering decisions about what’s around the corner; immediate or longer term.
Some believe that Jesus healed the blind and others that Moses parted the sea. Maybe Mohammad did split the moon and one particle can exist in two places at the same time. I believe that my sister cuts the cards. We choose our miracles. I’m good with mine. What are yours?
In 1982 a remarkable book was published defining the 10 most powerful global trends transforming our lives. Megatrends, written by John Naisbitt, was a blowout sensation that sold over 14 million copies and dominated the NYT Bestseller list for over 2 years, mostly at the top.
1982 was still largely the analog era and too early for Naisbitt to foresee recent technology disruptions like Blockchain or the Internet of Things (although the dissolution of consolidated hierarchies was a key theme), but his #2 on the list should give us all great pause. He was uncomfortable with an emergent invasive technology push and predicted a trend towards human balance and technology pull based on users’ true needs. To Naisbitt, high touch technology recognized that science “cannot solve all problems or do away with the need for responsibility and discipline.”
Fast forward to 2019 and undisciplined technology push seems to have missed the bulletin. That we over-connect and hyper-share is our own undoing, but organizations happy to encourage and exploit these tendencies are at best calculating and self-serving, and at worst sinister. And in the first signs of blowback two related but independent waves are forming: awareness of the loss of human touch and anxiety over the loss of privacy.
No one is suggesting an end to digital media – that genie is well out of the bottle – but there is a growing awareness of the dangers lurking therein and a growing discomfort with blind faith in the masters of this domain. Analog is cool again and rebuilding its brand.
Ubiquitous connectivity is harming the sincerity of our human connections, and doesn’t that read strangely? How can it be that the easier it is to connect, the less we feel sincerely connected? It takes no more than a walk down any city sidewalk or repose in a popular café to observe that we are ignoring the friends at our elbow in favor of remote pals with whom we can text, or whose new picture streams need to be swiped through right now.
The local highschoolers sweeping down my street every weekday at noon chatter and goof with buddies at their sides while typing away distractedly on their phones. After school they’ll hook up with their typing targets for drinks, then ignore them while texting back to their lunchtime besties.
Wouldn’t it be more satisfying to eliminate the digital distance and revel in the camaraderie of the analog moment?
Pinging and getting pinged suggests that you have a very cool and dynamic social scene going on; I get that. So then not constantly tapping implies the opposite, that you’re a lonely loser? Teenagers cringe at that particular tarring and that’s fair enough, but shouldn’t age and maturity allow the rest of us to move beyond those particular insecurities?
Yes is the answer of course, and a growing pool of analog acolytes are emphasizing that realization with a hearty Hell Yes!
That the titans of social media are poor shepherds of our personal data has been widely revealed. There is no need to spill more digital ink on that phenomenon here, but interested readers can refer to a newsletter just launched by the NYT called The Privacy Project. To quote a newsletter quote from Matt Cagle, ACLU attorney, “Privacy is really about being able to define for ourselves who we are for the world and on our own terms. That’s not a choice that belongs to an algorithm or data broker and definitely not to Facebook.”
Yet many of us are happy to make that deal: a stage to share our carefully crafted (and questionably authentic) self-images in return for the devil’s unfettered access to our personal data: interests and alliances, locations, browsing histories, and rolodex of contacts (whether or not they’ve agreed to the tradeoff).
I plead guilty but at least am not alone. And an emerging riptide is forming along the digital beach, tugging at those of us eager for that drag back to the analog sea. I’m all in.
Back to the Farm
So there is survivalist movement afoot; a back-to-the-farm redux for 2020. We can label it digital minimalism or going off the internet grid. It has nothing to do with mountain compounds or the hoarding of bullets and canned goods. It has everything to do with resistance, and who doesn’t love a good resistance movement?
As part of this nouveau vague the term analog has taken position front and center, a new cool. Just two examples include a NYT article that ran last week (I quote from it too often, but it’s one of the last truly great newspapers in America; consider subscribing) titled Digital Addiction Getting You Down? Try an Analog Cureand a new hard cover publication called The Analog Sea Review, an offline (naturally) journal of poems, short stories and essays that can be found at your local bookstore, … and only at your local bookstore (sorry Amazon).
It’s small movement in early days, but gaining attention and it’s got mine. For the moment I’ll continue to publish my newsletters online because I want them easily found and read. And my music will remain available in Spotify and other media platforms, although compared to a CD (get yours here) the sound quality is horrible. But then isn’t that the sacrifice we make for our online social connections as well: a quality experience for casual convenience.
Suggested Song: Wall of Death, Richard & Linda Thompson
Suggested Drink: a frothy pint of Guinness. Let the toasts begin.
I was in Nashville last week for a funeral and had been invited to say a few words on behalf of my family. This kind of duty can make people squirm. To be honest I don’t mind it. It provides a rare chance to reconnect with that soulful raconteur within, a genetic companion from my paternal grandfather, who was an Irish preacher of the good word.
Toasts spill out with ease, but eulogies can be tough to get right when the material is thin. This was not the case in Nashville. In fact my challenge was less what to say and more what to leave out. For my oldest sister had suddenly departed a life of beautiful breadth and depth. She was a traveler and seeker, a generous giver and curious student, strong when strength was needed, vulnerable when our own failings were being shared.
Life is short so enjoy it now.
This popular call to carpe diem always gets a good airing at funerals and wakes. It never quite hit the intended mark for me.
Life is short. Not necessarily. All that we know for sure is that none of us have any idea for sure. Children die unexpectedly and wrinkled up folks live past 100 and most of us get plunked down somewhere in between.
I never heard my grandmother Magill say life was short. For her, life was one long adventure. She escaped the crossroads of a Pennsylvania village and ventured off to college at the dawn of the Roosevelt era – Teddy that is – when a woman’s place was well understood: hands on the pot and babies on the hip. Work and wonder would carry her on to Puerto Rico, up to Manhattan (where a degree from Columbia was added), down to deep, deep Alabama, and then overseas to the Egyptian Sudan where she married my grandfather; the one and the same mentioned above.
Grammy lived to 100 and my sister to 67. I lost a close childhood friend at 19. We can’t waste time trying to size up our allotted sand in the hourglass. Life is unpredictable. Isn’t the key to get in a grand story worth sharing?
Enjoy it now. I don’t propose suffering now, but there is more to life than margaritas deck-side. If we want our eulogists’ writing assignment to be easy then we need lead lives worth retelling. And we’re all going to have someone retelling our stories, right? No one gets out of here alive.
So my point is this: go bold, go deep, do it now. Your remaining days may not be short. You may have decades left to create a magic that reflects all the best of your gifts and passions. Then again, you may have one more day. Be the author of the narrative you want delivered on that sunny day in the chapel, or it may fall to someone much less vested in making you sound amazing. Offer a highlight reel that can’t be cut and cropped; one that keeps everyone roused and laughing between tears.
Put a pint in my hand and I’ll stay full of barley-inspired toasts to you for many a round. But if you want deeper reflections on a life that truly mattered, that left everyone who knew and touched you in a better place, take the leap now. Uncover, develop, and share that bold gift as only you can.
Dedicated to J. Catherine. You made my job so easy sister.
It was billed as “The World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment,” and the local event was held in a large grassy park in my hometown of Aix-en-Provence. This is what happened. I arrived soon after lunch to find 3 dozen or so people already paired up, sitting on cushions and facing one another, relaxed and concentrating on their partner’s eyes, and not uttering a peep. This trance would hold for a few minutes, then after warm smiles and a short debrief they would part and seek out someone new, … someone like me.
Fixing on a stranger’s eyes for a sustained moment without conversing is an intense, slightly disconcerting experience at first. Nicolas was my initial victim. I’ve never fixed on another man’s eyes for 2 minutes in silence. What should I be expressing and how do I do that without uttering a sound? It’s the opposite of mindfulness. You’re not focused internally on breath and body, you’re connecting externally and personally, and there is an odd intimacy that is unavoidable. The mind searches for the appropriate decorum. How to convey empathy but not attraction with only my gaze?
Lily was next. She was a different person of course and the opposite gender, and I was now experienced (as Jimi would say). I was curious to see if that changed things, started to relax, and could lock eyes without overthinking my presence and demeanor. From Nicolas I received a gentle vibe of curiosity and outreach, and with Lily it was a simple acceptance. Here I am facing you. There is nothing more important at this very moment than our simple bond. We are going to just connect in silence and relax, … friendly smile.
I sat with a few more people before leaving. Each exchange was unique and quietly profound, and required a moment to reflect and recompose before moving on to someone new. The point of this event, held that day in dozens of cities across the globe, was to appreciate afresh the wonders of genuine human connection. Not through a carefully manicured iPhone photo or social media stream, but across a naked space of perhaps 3 feet, separating you from a stranger offering 100% of their attention, deeply, for a few minutes. Beautiful.
The Need for Speed
I have a few friends who use Tinder. I’ve gotten the demo: the wow Bill,the check this one out, their swipe, the immediate response and plans for an evening dalliance. It’s an ultimate end to the trend in speed and effortlessness that has taken root these past many years. Why spend time in the kitchen when gourmet options are available in your frozen section? Why learn to play a guitar with real strings when you can be the next Slash with Guitar Hero? Why learn to commune with friends in person when you can socialize over the phone, still in your boxers at home? And why learn to love when sex is available with the ease of a swipe?
Am I showing my age when I say that this leaves me more than a little sad, … and confused? What don’t people get? The joy of cooking is more than a classic recipe book. Art offers even more to the creator than the consumer. The beauty of friendship is most deeply enjoyed elbow to elbow (and glass to glass!), … without ringtones. And love, well the gulf between sex and love is as wide as the ocean is deep. It’s like comparing a Big Mac to the Colours, Textures & Flavours course at Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris.
Personally, I shoot for the human touch trifecta by inviting good friends for long dinners prepared throughout the afternoon in my modest kitchen. And for this they get a proper torturing after dessert with a few new songs on my trusty guitar or piano. Food, friends, music, perfecto!
Life is short. Why rush through it? Dive deep and linger over what you create, when you connect, and whom you love.
For more on the “The World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment” click here.
Goodbyes can be hard and I’ve had an avalanche of them this year. Friends, kids, and lovers moving on, cherished apartments given up, and even my daily out-door market moved from the bottom of the street to across town. Now that really hurt. Adios.
This kind of churn wreaks havoc on the daily agenda. Whom I see when, where, and what it is we do together has been upended, and being a creature of habit I am off my game. The creative well is dusty, productivity down, and motivation flagging. My summer rosé pace remains robust and thank god for that. At least I can point to something that’s trending up.
It all started near year-end with that darn Sottak family. After holding court as provocateurs and organizers of all things social and immensely fun amongst our circle for the past 7 years, they decided to call it a French day and skedaddle back to the US. They were the glue and warm glow that pulled us all together for spontaneous apéros and long family dinners, group holidays to hither and tither, fun and frolic and generally irresponsible licentiousness. That they could not be replaced made their move even more unforgiveable.
Then over the Noel holidays my landlord sent a cryptic email that a dinner in January was welcome, … and needed. He needed to sell the apartment that was my welcome matt to Aix-en-Provence in 2010, a small but noble 17th century flat in the heart of this sun-touched, provincial city. So many memories between those walls: my 3 kids and their friends joyfully spread out amongst the cots and daybed and pullout; the communal meals and singing and supporting and debating and always one more bottle; mon amoure at my breakfast table, her perfume lingering for hours after departure. Another difficult goodbye.
More recently good friends of mine in Aix have decided to get divorced. They are managing it with all the love and respect that a beautiful 13-year marriage deserves, but it leaves me sad and deflated. My reaction is purely selfish of course, as they both seem fine and taking on the change with a positive, forward-facing attitude. I see a farewell to the many delicious memories we’ve shared these past 7 years, two of my closest friends imagined as forever a unit and couple.
I will continue to see them separately of course, but between their news and my own recent breakup, and my daughter packing up last week after a final long summer with Dad (growing up and college bound next year), and the Sottak departure, and the apartment move, … 2017 is becoming one long goodbye to an intimately warm and beautiful era.
Goodbye and Hello are funny words. One starts with a positive syllable but is often a distressing experience, while the other begins with a foreboding term but is typically hopeful and uplifting. Weird. Hello to new people in our lives, hello to new places.
The best we can do with empty space is to enjoy its serenity. Our daily lives are filled with turbulence, and a momentary calm can be soothing and restorative. An empty home is a clean slate, and an empty heart, once healed, open for new and beautiful souls to discover.
I’m keeping my hellos to a minimum through this transition, leaning toward the zen hermit mode and a few faithful friends. Stay busy and switch up the hours regularly. Avoid the routines that tug out warm memories. Run at dawn, write into the night, then write at dawn and run late. Travel on impulse, an evening in Italy or weekend in Paris. Keep the overnight bag at the ready. Staying off balance seems to offset the imbalance of these various goodbyes. I can’t explain why, but it’s working.
I’m hoping that all of your goodbyes are as warm and tender as mine. That doesn’t lessen the sting, but eases the recovery.
Enjoy the rest of the summer. It will be saying goodbye all too soon.