(Here’s something I tried writing when I was sitting around in Madrid last week. Since I’m sitting around in an airport, I figure I’ll post it and you can try to make sense of it.)
I saw my buddy Tina last Monday in NYC. She and two friends were visiting from Australia, and this led to my doing the one thing I know I should never do: drink with Australian men.
Yes, dear reader, I spent that evening at the Hi Life, knocking down G&Ts while the main songwriter for Anal Traffic paced me with pints of Stella Artois. Fortunately, no Flatliners were involved, but we had such a nice vibe at the bar that we bailed on our original plan of heading around the corner to my favorite Thai place in the city. We ended up meeting there a few nights later for dinner, before they left NYC for an appointment with a roller-coaster in Sandusky, OH.
In all, it was an entertaining evening, catching up with Tina and shooting the breeze with Paul, a prototype for campy gay men, while their friend Ruben (a Spaniard) stared at us, relatively incomprehending.
I met Tina during my trip to New Zealand two years ago. We had a great time not taking anything seriously for those two weeks, and stayed in touch since. If you’re interested in reading about that trip, click back on the November & December 2003 archives. Someday, I’ll get all my pictures moved over to Flickr, and that’ll make it easier for you guys to see some of the wonderful photos I took over there.
As great as it was to catch up with Tina and make a new (and impossible-to-take-seriously) friend in Paul, the conversation also was a sort of counterbalance/antidote for the previous evening.
That night, I went to my friend K’s apartment in NYC after dropping the offical VM fiancee off at her apartment (she’s moving in with me in a few weeks, so our Sunday ritual of bailing on the late football games and trying to avoid the bridge/tunnel traffic will come to an end). K is in broadcast journalism school, and wanted me to come by so she could interview me about a “turning point” in my life. It was mainly a technical exercise in setting up lighting, audio, etc., and less about interviewing.
Or maybe it was supposed to involve her interviewing technique, but that’s not how it worked out. She didn’t exactly make it clear, so I figured I’d go with the me-and-a-camera format, talk to the red light, and evolve out some conversation with myself. It was nice, being unabashedly self-centered, insofar as I didn’t know if I was supposed to be talking with K or not. Sure, a lot of you will contend that I’m pretty self-centered anyway, but it was my job this time, so that made it better.
Anyway, I just rambled on forever. How on earth she’s going to cut it down to 60-90 seconds, I can’t imagine.
I know, I know: Get to the turning point!
(Actually, just writing that phrase reminds me of the time in college that a girlfriend slipped Rilke’s poem “Wendung” under my door. The night we first hooked up, I read her a poor translation of “Archaischer Torso Apollos” on a bench at Mt. Holyoke College. Weeks later, she was mad over something and she put that poem under my door. I think it was all about a dark, brooding, self-centered guy who is too dark, brooding, and self-centered for his own good. In a hotel. I’ll have to reread it sometime. They’re my virtual memories, so deal, okay?)
K asked me to help her with the assignment a few days earlier, and it got me thinking about turning points. Amy & K both thought I’d talk about 9.11, and it’s a pretty easy conclusion to draw. I thought about it, and about the death of my “surrogate” dad, and the time I saw my buddy Drake in the ICU in Philadelphia, and my dad the night after his heart surgery. All those moments affected me pretty profoundly, personally and historically, but I thought, “They’re all about death and suffering, and that’s not who I am.”
So I told K that the turning point in my life was the two weeks I spent in New Zealand, and I talked about that for her camera.
Thing was, I was in a pretty bad emotional state when I went on the trip, having been dumped a few weeks before. So I spent some time over there being dark and brooding, etc., before I had a big realization: no one cared.
See, what struck me early in the trip was the immensity of everything. Partly, it was the fact that I’d traveled nearly halfway around the world, chasing nothing more substantial than some black-and-white images from a comic book. I’d already been feeling torn to pieces over this breakup, alternating between rage and self-pity, but my absolute distance from my life was about to make everything make sense.
What I thought was, “If you take everyone in the southern hemisphere, and ask them all, ‘Do you know who Gil Roth is?’, there might be five people who’d say yes.”
And then I thought, “Why are you acting like they have to know all of your backstory?”
And then I stopped.
I wrote about this a little last year, on the anniversary of the trip, and it’s held up pretty well.
So I told K’s camera about the trip, about the sense of uprootedness-unto-freedom (reminds me of college again; this time the classes on Heidegger), of watching those cares spiral down the drain (counter-clockwise, what with that coriolis effect), of coming back here and soon after meeting the love of my life, and of being able to meet love like that, of being ready to be happy.
I hadn’t formulated those thoughts before, so I puzzled through them and others as the camera rolled. Unfortunately, I think K was hoping for something more death-oriented.
She started asking about 9.11 and the tattoo on my arm (“9.11.01 Never Forget”). She wanted to know what I think about now when I look at the tattoo, since I’m a different person than the guy who got it.
That’s still a tough question. There are all those sad points, both personal and historic, in life. I explained that I’ve found joy now, found myself in joy, but that doesn’t make for great copy, I admit.
So I tried explaining how my take on 9.11 hasn’t exactly changed, but has deepened, grown more complex, filled with more emotions. Like life.
I talked about the experience of watching Ric Burns’ New York documentary this summer, with its 3-hour conclusion about the World Trade Center. Amy & I watched that last installment a week before the anniversary of the attacks, and I meant to write about it here, but I was so darned busy.
Now I’m sitting in a Madrid hotel room, waiting for my coworkers to show up so we can go get paellas. So here we go.
There’s been a lot said and written about the Twin Towers, what they meant to people, what an eyesore they were, how much they meant to the skyline. But beyond all the anecdotes and theories about them, Ric Burns managed to get a story from a guy who had a unique perspective on the towers: Philippe Petit.
Philippe’s perspective would be from about 110 storeys up, balanced on a tightrope. I knew there’d been a Frenchman who tightroped between the towers in the ’70s, but I didn’t know anything about his story. Burns let it take up about 15-20 minutes of the documentary, and it was all worth it.
See, the thing is, I had always assumed that the tightrope-walker was a pro who decided that the Twin Towers were his greatest challenge. Instead, to hear Petit tell the story, he was just a guy with a toothache, waiting for his dentist’s appointment, when he read about the construction of the towers in the late 1960s. He knew then and there that he had to walk between them.
But the thing is, he’d never walked on a tightrope before. He learned the skill and developed it for a few years, so that he could walk between the towers.
The documentary covered all sorts of details: How do you get a tightrope across the span? How fast are the winds up there? How do you find this out without tipping anyone off that you’re getting ready to walk across the towers? It’s a remarkable story, and I wasn’t expecting to hear such joy in Petit’s voice as he told it. It was the tone of someone who knew exactly what he was supposed to do, and doesn’t have any regrets at accomplishing it.
The loss of the towers saddened him, of course, but he managed to balance that against the utter joy he had while walking along that rope a dozen times.
My favorite photo from that story is one the police took of Petit up on the tightrope. He’s lying on his back, one foot on the rope, the other across his upraised knee, balancing beam across his chest. He’s weightless, at play higher than anyone had ever thought to play. He was home.
Now, when I think of 9.11, all my horror can balance itself against the image of Petit in his heaven.
I tried explaining this to the camera and K, but it kept coming out wrong. Just like now. I’m afraid someone will read this and say that I’m tossing out 3,000 lives because of the absurdities of some Frenchman. I don’t know how to show that I’m not. The images of that day still leave me wrecked. But now there’s also this notion that the towers mean more than what Al Qaeda turned them into. Petit, in his absurd French way, made me realize that the towers were the place that he became complete.
So that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about leavening sadness with joy. K didn’t get it, I don’t think. When she e-mailed me a day later, she wrote about my “lifelong sadness,” even though I thought so much of the interview and our subsequent conversation was about joy.
You want to talk about this some more?