My awful memory strikes again. Last night, I was walking along 34th street on my way home from a strenuous evening helping my friend Boris move into his new apartment. I was really exhausted and sweaty from moving all the boxes, and I suppose this will partially be my excuse for what happened next. As I am making my way towards 9th ave, I see a guy standing on the corner who motions to me. As I get closer, I see that it is someone I recognize, but I can’t immediately place. Not being sure of how I even know him, I am a little distant, asking vague questions to try to jog my memory while at the same time not giving away that I have no idea who he is. I tell him (quite truthfully) that I am tired and need to head home, and I bid him a polite but distant farewell. On my way home I rack my brain for the context….is he a friend of a friend, someone I had a date with a long time ago, someone I talked to online? I have a couple of suspicions, and start to go online to try to match faces. It takes a while, but then I finally have a match. And I am really embarrassed, this is someone I should have recognized, even though I haven’t seen him in a really long time. When have talked online, but matching faces online with living, breathing ones can be a stretch sometimes. And context is everything. See the person you see in one context out and about in another, and it can be much more difficult for your brain to put it all together. At least mine, apparently.
I went to see a new film yesterday called (appropriately) “Weekend“. As you might imagine, the entire story takes place over a single weekend, and deals in a no frills, intimate way with the beginning of a relationship. It explores what happens when two people meet and get to know each other, coming to terms with their differing outlooks and perspectives. The film for me was definitely more than the sum of its parts, even though it was the parts I focused on. The almost always close in camera shots. The use of sound and more importantly overlaid sounds that obscured the dialog to great effect. The honesty about gay sex and how it is portrayed inside (to the gay community) and outside (to the straight world), even though the sex acts themselves were highly abbreviated. The simple moments of kindness. The honest, messy back and forth of getting to know someone. The simple ways drugs and alcohol can affect how people interact with each other. In short, the film was highly naturalistic, with a vulnerable tenderness that well conveys what connecting with someone is really like.
I’ve been on a bit of a break from writing the past couple of weeks. I wish I could say that it was just because I was just too busy, but that isn’t really the case. Sometimes I am motivated and sometimes I am not. I was in a period of no general writing desire and a slight funk for no discernible reason. I feel a bit more engaged now, and will be trying to be more reliable with updates. Last night was all about the EV and LES, as I first attended a friend’s (Michelle) birthday cocktail get together at a lovely little place called Mary Queen of Scots. The snacks, along with the drinks, were great (I especially recommend the Devils on Horseback). After one too many drinks there, I was off to a late-ish dinner at a place called Perbacco on east 4th. I really love it when odd groupings of friends that don’t know each other get together, and last night in addition to the regulars (Fabian and Craig), we invited along two friends of mine, Matthias (who I met in Hamburg this summer and who is visiting NYC this week) and my old friend Tom (who I used to work with in LA many years ago, lives here now, and I don’t get to see often enough). The food at the restaurant was really yummy, and although ostensibly an Italian restaurant and heavily influenced by Italian cuisine, it was rather more inventive than that. To give but one example, the starter I had (Crème brulée di Parmigiano Reggiano) was an amazing cross of several cultures, savory and sweet flavors, and full on yum. Highly recommended. It has been surprisingly warm and humid, with on and off rain for the past few days, but it was very pleasant last night after dinner as we walked several avenues across town to work off our dinner a bit before getting in the subway and heading north and home.
I was on my way to New York that day.
I was working in Los Angeles as IT director for a company called LPI (a job I had moved to LA to take only a few months earlier), and we had offices in New York as well as LA. September 11, 2001 was to be my second trip on company business, and I was excited to go as I loved any chance to visit New York. It was early in the morning, and I was getting my things packed and ready to go to LAX. My friend Dustin was going to give me a lift to the airport, and just as I was finishing my prep he called me to tell me to turn on the TV, there had been some small prop plane that had hit the WTC. He asked if I thought this would affect my flight and I said that although that sounded like a terrible accident, I doubted it would affect me and I would see him at my place in half an hour. It was around 6am (my flight was for 8), and I turned on the TV to watch the news. Sure enough, a plane had hit one of the towers and several stations were carrying it live. And then, the unimaginable happened. Live from the scene, watching with my own eyes, a second plane hit the other tower.
I spent the next couple of hours glued to the TV, watching the unfolding horror of the other planes and the collapse of the towers. I tried in vain to reach people in New York via email and phone, dealing with a few small contingencies for the office in LA which was to be closed that day, and hanging out with Dustin. We wandered aimlessly that day through what seemed like a ghost town. We wondered if LA would be hit, and how. We were in shock, like everyone.
It was two weeks later (when the air embargo had lifted and I was able to get a flight) that I finally took that trip to a very changed New York. People were still in a state of shock, with a kind of end-of-the-world pall hanging over everything. Everyone was drinking heavily, taking an array of drugs, and generally trying to numb themselves in whatever way possible. I made my way down to the still-smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center, and noticed a sickly odor in the area, what seemed to me like a combination of dust, concrete, and vaporized human remains. But the worst of it for me were the xeroxed 8.5 by 11 pieces of paper that were stuck to walls everywhere I went in the city. Rows and rows of photos and sketches of faces. Notes about missing loved ones, and how to contact their families with any information. By the time I got to New York, they must have already given up hope of finding them, but there they still were, everywhere. Thousands of them. For some reason, for me, this is the image most burned into my mind from that time. The lost love and lost hope of ever finding them, but still there, calling out in vain.
A few weeks ago, I realized that a milestone in my life was approaching. It will soon be 5 years since I up-ended everything, quit my cushy job, sold everything I owned, and took off for India. I started my blog around the same time, mostly to give friends and family a way to check in on me without receiving those painful travel mass-emailings that so many people are prone to send. I told everyone “If you are interested, check out the blog. If not, no big deal. But don’t worry, I will not be sending you SPAM.” And so it was a few weeks ago that I went back to look at my very first blog post. As fate would have it, it was on Sept 11, 2006. I clearly could not have picked a worse first date to start a blog (except perhaps for Sept 11, 2001). I could never celebrate the birth of my blog without being reminded of the chaos and horror of 9/11, could I? And yet, it must not have been such a terribly big deal to me on the 5th anniversary. At least not enough to occupy my thoughts or emotions to the degree that I would not be able to focus on setting up my first blog and post. I was probably in denial about living under the Bush terror regime, and equally excited about the incredible changes that were happening (and god knows, about to happen) in my life at the time. The road to my mid-life crisis trip was well set in motion by that point, every day closer to taking that leap.
I honestly never could have imagined all that awaited me, and how much gratitude I have every day for what it taught me. We really can change our lives in dramatic ways, and a great leap into the unknown pays huge dividends. But this post is more about the blog itself, and the process of writing it. Five years later, I admit to being surprised that I have kept it going all this time, and what a labor of love it has become for me. It is my soapbox, my corner of the world, my outlet, my confessor, my scrapbook, my silliness, my memory. It is the place I work thorough ideas and hone them. It is a journal of my experience, and a way to reach out to the world. It is my art, in the truest sense of the word. For it is not for sale, beyond the reach of commerce. It has no specific purpose or function, although it embodies many different ones at different times. It is about everything and nothing.
Five years. Half a decade. It went by so very quickly, but was filled with so very much. I am flabbergasted when I look at this map showing where I have been in the last five years:
So here’s to the next five years. If there is one thing I can predict with certainty, it is that I can’t predict with certainty. And that is one of the greatest things about being alive.
In both my personal and professional lives, I owe much to the work that people have done before me. I am acutely aware every day of their generosity, and I am filled with gratitude. The brave men and women who stood up to oppression before my time made it easier for me to come out and in my small way do the same. And the great people who produce open source and shared software code have enabled me to have a livelihood and inspired me to give back to the community.
To break it down for you: Most of the websites I currently produce are built atop a base software called WordPress. This software allows me to do amazing things, and it is completely free for me to use and customize, and tweak, and build on top of, to my heart’s content. That is because WordPress (like a lot of very good software these days) is what is known as “open source“. I pay nothing for this software and yet without it I would have a hard time making a living. The open source model of software development is quite radical in a lot of ways. Everyone who uses and modifies the code is required to make whatever changes they have made available to everyone in the community. Some of these changes end up being very useful for a huge number of people, some of them not so much. But at the heart of this model is a sharing of effort and resources that benefits everyone. There is a booming WordPress economy because of this, and it is one of the most popular software projects anywhere, with millions upon millions of people using it. And there are tons of ways that people make money off of this free product. Some people sell support services. Some, like me, use it as a base to build custom software on top of. Some provide web hosting plans. Some promote themselves on their own blogs, selling ads or subscriptions to their content. All of this made possible by people giving their time and effort to the community.
Because of the gratitude I have, I have always been looking for ways to give back. Up until now, it has been rather informally, answering posts here and there to help out my fellow travelers, sharing small bits of code I have written with this or that person. I have often thought that I would someday submit a theme or plugin to share with the community, but as there are so many out there already, I didn’t see that I had anything particularly novel or useful to offer. But today, I came across a bonafide need in one of my projects for which there was no plugin readily available. So I wrote a simple one that did what I needed, and submitted it to the WordPress repository to share with the world. Hopefully someone will find it useful, and the process of writing and submitting it was a great learning experience in and of itself. But more importantly, I like the idea of paying back (or forward) the debt I owe to people that are changing the world for the better.
I was a little taken aback this afternoon when I received this rather large and imposing envelope in the mail:
What could it be, I wondered? Since I am the type of person who always feels guilty of something (whether or not I have been accused), I racked my brain in the elevator on the way back up to my apartment. There were other people in the car with me, not to mention the security cameras, so I jealously guarded my envelope like an expert CIA operative, keeping cool, no false moves, walking out of the elevator with total forthrightness as I walked back to my apartment. Once opened, I was relieved to find out that it was an actual resolution to a problem I had reported to the Department of Homeland Security about 9 months ago. You heard right, DHS and NINE months.
My misery with the DHS goes back to something that happened over 20 years ago (on March 15, 1991 according to their records — beware the ides of March indeed). I was living in Paris at the time and had lost my passport and needed to get another. I dutifully went to the embassy, got my emergency passport and later on a trip home to the states had it extended (emergency passports are only valid a few months without further proof of identity), along with handing them the old passport which had by this time been found. And you know what they did with that original passport? They punched two holes in it, stamped it CANCELLED, and handed it back to me. Over the next several years I took many an oversea trip, with nary a problem or peep from any customs or immigration official anywhere on US soil. Then something called September 11, 2001 happened.
In the frenzy that followed, to “protect” our country from threats real and imagined, the Bush/Cheney axis (of evil) steamrolled over most of the civil liberties we used to take for granted in this country. In their zeal to protect (and let’s face it, control) the population, they enacted a bunch of laws aimed at consolidating their power into one amazing police state. Among their many bright ideas was the creation of an office of “Homeland Security”, tasked with setting up security lines at airports, among other things. And among the other various high profile potential terrorist threats swept up in their dragnet was me. Yes, me. For, since the creation of that department, I have had no end of trouble trying to get back into the country after each trip abroad. The story was always the same, and always met with the same result. I would be returning from a trip to Europe or Mexico or wherever, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends, and most of the time I would be stopped and questioned for about 30 minutes, always about this mysterious “missing” passport. The first time it happened, I thought that after I had explained it to them (and that it wasn’t missing at all, I had it in a drawer at home with holes punched in it) they would enter it into some super sophisticated database and records would be updated and I would not be troubled again. But it did happen again, and again. Always the exact same story, always about a 30 minute delay waiting in some side office to get some clearance to leave. I asked on several occasions what I could do about it, and I offered to turn in the “missing” passport if they would just tell me who to give it to. I asked who I could contact about it, and got conflicting information. Last year I had finally had enough and talked to someone at the passport agency who passed me to someone else who told me to contact DHS, who pointed me, finally, to a website to lodge my complaint and submit documentation.
And so, for months and months I have been checking the site with nary a status update other than “documents received”. I did notice upon returning from Europe three weeks ago that I was not stopped in the usual way. And lo and behold, today in the mail I get the notice of resolution. (Let’s just hope my little rant here doesn’t return me to their danger list.)