Saturday, February 24, 2007

Leaning into Passion

As soon as the transaction was complete, I started to cry. The combination of relief and joy just overflowed before I even realized what was happening.

Buying something doesn't normally engender such a reaction; the only other time I can think of is when I won the eBay auction for my wedding dress. But here was something I'd waited for even longer than a wedding. After filling in my contact info on two different sites, entering my credit card number, and passing the anti-spam distorted-character test, I got my confirmation: I had tickets to see the reunited Police.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I distinctly remember the moment when my life-long love affair with the Police began. It was 1983. I was taking a 3-week geology class at CTY, a fast-paced academic summer camp I was attending for the second year. I found such solace there: the kids around me weren't afraid to be smart with each other. In our respective hometowns, our intelligence marked us somehow, for better and worse. In my case, it was the thing I held on to for self-esteem while being tormented for my weight. Here, though, where brilliance was the norm, I felt like I could relax and discover myself. I didn't have to prove anything.

Our geology class took a few multi-day field trips off campus that summer, traveling in 15-passenger vans to collect fossils and examine metamorphic rock formations where highways cut through Pennsylvania hillsides. On one long stretch of road, one of my classmates -- I don't remember his name, but I vaguely recall someone blond and generically cute -- urged several people to listen to a song on his Walkman. He handed me the headphones.

"King of Pain" was playing. The sound transformed me. Literally.

At that time, I didn't listen to the radio much, and I wouldn't have a Walkman for another year. I'd hear stuff at other people's houses and pick things up here and there, as I still do, but I was not what you'd called immersed in popular culture. So my ears came to the music fresh, untainted by past history or overplayed hits or mainstream perceptions.

The lyrics caught me first -- here was someone else unafraid of his intelligence. A black hat caught in a high tree top, a dead salmon frozen in a waterfall, a king on a throne with his eyes torn out, a skeleton choking on a crust of bread. Who knows -- perhaps my psyche was especially susceptible to the pull of "a fossil trapped in a high cliff wall" that summer.

Then there was the music, those lush harmonies, layered together by that voice. They worked a spell on me, drawing me in and sitting me in the middle of the haunting imagery. Until I handed the headphones back, I remained fully in the music's grip.

I still am.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I soon began listening to the Police more or less constantly. They became the soundtrack to my life. I started reading magazine articles about them, cutting out pictures to hang on my walls (I was 14, after all), learning all the lyrics and inflections on every song, anticipating each distinctive riff, and immersing myself in all things Police.

A few months later, by some amazing good fortune, I heard that they were going to play the Atlantic City Convention Center in February 1984. The concert was already sold out, yet through a chance set of circumstances, I heard about a place to buy a ticket. It cost $30 -- which was hugely expensive back then, and more than I'm usually willing to pay to see a concert even now. After weeks of deliberation, I knew I needed to go. I'd never been to a rock concert before and had had no idea even how to go about buying a ticket, so this opportunity presenting itself (and still being available after my long delay) was unlikely at best. Call it fate, the universe, divine intervention, what you will...I had the distinct impression of being looked out for.

In retrospect, I'm also amazed at how lucky I am that my parents agreed to the plan. We lived at the other end of New Jersey, and my dad would be driving me down there but not going in with me. Of course, I was a really good kid with solid common sense, so they had little to worry about on my end. Still, I'm eternally grateful for that trust.

The Police were phenomenal live. In addition to the overwhelming experience of the music and being 10 feet from the band (I made my way to the front of the stage through the crushing crowds in the aisles), I learned many things. For example, I'd never again make the mistake of wearing corduroy pants, a long-sleeve shirt, and an argyle sweater to a rock concert, even if it was biting winter outside. Less obviously, I hadn't realized that bands don't just play the songs from their album in order and then go home. And in a multileveled foreshadowing of my future, I felt real compassion for the opening band, whose announcement of, "This is our last song" was met with undeserved cheers.

The Police broke up after that tour, of course, though no one outside their circle knew for sure until a few years had passed with no word. I'm a hopeful person by nature, so it took me a very long time to accept a reality that was apparent to everyone else. I was broken-hearted. I'd finally found their music, and now there'd be no more forthcoming. I listened obsessively to Sting's first solo album during another summer at CTY...but it just wasn't the same.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Ever since I heard that the Police might reunite, I've had a buzz of excitement and agitation going through my cells more or less constantly. Their gig opening the Grammys was confirmed, but I was loathe to believe the rumors of a tour until I heard something official. Hope bubbled up anyway.

I warned my coworkers that I was going to be obsessing about this. I told them I'd be embarrassed about how excited I was if I weren't so busy being excited.

The Police played "Roxanne" at the Grammys, and I thought they were fantastic -- the beautiful way they played slightly behind the beat, the experiment of the arrangement for the second verse, Sting's ever-stunning biceps. Most of all, though, I saw how much FUN they were having. I knew right then that the rumors were true. They didn't need the money, but that joy and connection of making extraordinary that was a reason to get back together.

Sure enough, the announcement came the next day, but with an unexpected twist: they didn't have any California shows on the schedule. I was wracked with anxiety. This couldn't be happening. Surely they had to play somewhere in California. I knew they were planning to announce more shows, but I realized that they still might not make it to the Bay Area. I was determined to make something work. I couldn't imagine they'd skip LA -- so I'd hop on one of the commuter flights from SFO. Or take a vacation to Vancouver -- I like Vancouver. Or I could visit friends in Boston. One way or another, I couldn't miss this tour.

Finally, last Wednesday, they announced a show in Oakland, and some of my anxiety shifted into sheer delight. I heard about the announcement after I got home from dropping Emily at the Oakland Airport -- a rare errand that had me driving past the coliseum where they'll play. Synchronicity, anyone?

I had to decide quickly, though: would I drop the extra money to become a Premium Police Fan Club member and have access to pre-sales tickets? The pre-sales started Friday morning, but the premium membership didn't guarantee anything. Finally, I thought, "This is why I work: to have money for things that are important to me. I'm just going to do it. I want to have the best chance possible of getting tickets." I reasoned that it was still cheaper than traveling to LA.

I warned my coworkers on Friday morning that I was going to be incommunicado around 10am when the tickets went on sale. I kept saying, "I know I'm a dork, sorry. I'm trying to embrace my inner dork, it's okay...." But they were all just happy for me and wished me excellent luck.

Shortly after I got the tickets, I was IMing with a friend and told him how thrilled I was. We chatted about the Police and their incredible musicianship. I mentioned I'd been thinking recently that I was proud of my 14-year-old self: the object of my teenage obsession really was something extraordinary. Sting, Stewart Copeland, and Andy Summers are truly giants, virtuosi on their respective instruments, and they'd created a sound together that had never existed before. As a professional musician and songwriter with years of experience myself, I appreciate just how good they are, and especially how well their music holds up after all this time. I'd recognized that spark instantly in the passenger van, and even now I keep unearthing new subtleties.

After regaling my coworkers with the dramatic story of my ticket purchase and pulling out a printout of the coliseum seating with my section highlighted (reminiscent a proud new parent showing off the first baby pictures), I noticed how often I'd apologized for my excitement. Like caring about seeing the Police again was shallow and unworthy of serious emotion. But that's not how I talk about their music -- I speak of it with true passion. It comes from a deep place in me. It stirs something at my core. Their music has been an integral part of my life for nearly a quarter century -- what is there to be embarrassed about?

Their music taught me about thoughtful, intelligent, well-crafted songs. Each instrument showed me its range and the possibilities of what it can add to an arrangement. Different pieces helped me understand moods and emotions that I didn't know how to capture in words.

Most of all, though, I found myself through their music. Something opened in me that day in 1983. I discovered what it meant to be passionate, what it meant to dive deeply, what it meant to let my soul resonate freely. I could just relax, and lean in, and find the freedom to experience something beyond the borders of my own skin.

No, I'm not going to apologize about my excitement any more. Because this isn't about tickets to see my favorite rock band of all time. It's about the ecstasy of accessing the real me.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Dear Mr. President

Dear Mr. President:

In some way, I almost feel I should thank you. They say that nothing worth achieving comes easily, and you sure are putting up plenty of obstacles on the world’s path towards peace, compassion, and justice. There’s some comfort in knowing that once this vision is realized, it’ll have staying power because we had to go through so much to get there.

After September 11, I felt the profound potential of that moment—a time unlike any other in the history of humanity, when the entire world stood by this country’s side, consoling us as a dear friend would stand graveside while we mourned a beloved parent. But instead of extending the compassionate possibilities of that sacred moment, you pushed our dear friends into the dirt, spit in their faces, and told them that if they didn’t join us in kicking the shit out of someone—anyone—they might as well have murdered our loved ones themselves.

Thanks to you, humanity must now take the long way around in our evolution as a species. The very, very long way around. And it gets longer each day we remain in Iraq, each time you beat the drums of war at Iran and Syria, each time you wave the flag of “terrorism” to justify shredding the Constitution you have sworn to uphold—a victory this country’s enemies could not possibly accomplish as thoroughly and efficiently as the victory you yourself are handing them.

Have you no eyes to see, Mr. President? No ears to hear the cries of the people you were elected to serve? No humility to conceive that your plans might be failing? I simply cannot understand your unflagging bravado in the face of overwhelming evidence that your policies are leading to increasing misery, both at home and abroad. Even Jesus expressed uncertainty about his path—and in his case, the only life he was risking, the only sacrifice he was asking, was his own. Not thousands of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians sent to senseless deaths. Are you more sure of yourself than even Jesus was? Can your arrogance extend that far?

But I’m a hopeful person, Mr. President. I believe it isn’t too late for this country or for this world. No, nothing worth achieving comes easily. You’re making us work hard for a world based in love rather than fear, lived in connection rather than isolation, and embraced in its beautiful fullness rather than sliced into bland uniformity.

Ever since this war started, I haven’t been able to stomach “fighting back” in protest. Peace can’t come about through the language of war, just as you can’t “defend freedom” by trying to silence your critics. So whenever people gather to speak out against the war, I don’t shout in anger. Instead, I hand out peace haiku: 17-syllable reminders that our common humanity is the best long-term defense against our common destruction. Here are a few of my favorites:

Supporting the troops
Means bringing them back alive,
Not in body bags.

History records
The art as well as the war –
These lines, my small peace.

There’s no joy in death,
Whatever the corpses’ names –
I name them Human.

Lies, lies, and more lies –
Have you no shame, Mr. Bush?
At long last, no shame?
It’s your move, Mr. President. Will you use your power to move this world closer to justice and peace? Or will your hubris continue placing obstructions in our way? I urge you to choose wisely.

In peace,

[Tip of the hat to Michael Franti and Spearhead, whose President's Day letter-writing contest initiated this piece.]