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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

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Sunday, September 30, 2001

Shang High Life, #7

Shang Hai Life, #7
September 30, 2001

I started writing this intending it to be the engagement story for which a few of the kinder or more voyeuristic among you have asked. I’m afraid, however, that a few cute paragraphs have turned into a self-indulgent history. If you’re not interested in long tales of improbable romance, don’t bother reading this.

This Is A Fine Not Romance

Seven years ago, Bernard Zuel invited me to join in a group night out at the theatre. Jacqueline Hole, another of the group, invited Geri. It was a set up, about which each of us had been warned in advance. It’s still a mystery to me why they thought Geri and I would be a good match. They’ve never said, probably because no one likes to advertise their failures.

That night at the theatre wasn’t a home run. I spent much of it seething at the friend who had picked me up over an hour late, making me miss dinner with the mysterious woman described to me as an ebullient redhead. It took me most of the play to cool down. The play, itself, didn’t help much: David Williamson’s Oleana, a sweet little piece about sexual harassment and the abuse of power. (Unknown Aussie actors Geoffrey Rush and Cate Blanchett played the leads.)

Afterwards, over coffee and desert, discussion of the play was energetic, but Geri didn’t say much. She was beautiful, but “ebullient” seemed like false advertising. Or, maybe, she just hated the look of the guy she’d been set up with.

She did, however, project a quiet, warm energy: difficult to grasp, but definitely attractive. So, I called Bernard the next day. Did the chivalrous thing. Asked if he would get her permission for me to call her. I know it sounds silly, but it seemed like a respectful thing to do. Plus, it gave her a way out without either of us having to experience her rejecting me to my face.

With permissions granted and telephone numbers transferred into the intending hands, a first date was arranged. When we told people this story, recently, one of Geri’s friends shrieked when she heard that first dinner together was at the Lord Nelson pub. She looked straight at me and accused: “And who chose a *pub* for your first date!?” I’m sure I looked more than a little smug. “Geri,” I said.

We bonded that first night in the classic way: by talking about Geri’s ex, with whom she was still obviously in love. Not undaunted, but undeterred, I asked her out again. That second date, at a Thai restaurant in Newtown, was memorable mostly for the duck salad, over which Geri still regularly freaks out.

It was on our third date that Geri dumped me. Geri hates this part of the story. I don’t know whether it is the sentence itself, or the flourish with which I regularly deliver it. Actually, I think it’s the word “dumped” that gets under her skin. She protests that she merely retreated gracefully. Yet, the same friend who made the pub accusation vindicated me on Geri’s retelling of the scene: “Houston, you were *so* dumped!”

So, after three chaste dates, seven years passed. Geri and I didn’t touch the notion of shared romance, much less each other (…well, okay, there was a drunken snog, once, when we were both single), but we didn’t lose track of each other, either. Our relationship began as mutual fondness between two people who’d been out on three dates. It became one of deep respect and support. Especially artistically, we were each other’s greatest enthusiasts. Perhaps the thing we had most in common was that driving combination of passion and insecurity about our creative efforts: Geri’s in music and painting, mine in photography.

It became a defining friendship: happy in each other’s happiness, rushing to lift each other from hard falls. And Geri became one of those rare people the luckiest of us have who help us understand who we are at our best as friends. We didn’t expect much from each other, but we got a lot.

It’s hard to tell this story, retrospectively, without making it seem prescient about where Geri and I are, today. In narrative, everything that comes early in a story appears to pre-ordain later events. As readers, we feel complicit in a secret the characters don’t know. As I write this, I’m conscious that our story can seem like that of the two lovers who always wanted each other but wouldn’t speak of it… Yet, I can tell you that Geri and I never considered each other during those years of our friendship.

That is why I see so much courage in what Geri ultimately did. It was many, many months after I left Australia for California. She called. We had spoken several times since my move, and we had talked about the feeling of loss from not having each other around the corner. What had been an easy constant for seven years had been interrupted and we both felt it. But this call was different. Geri’s tone was almost confessional. The hole in her life was a different shape than she had expected, and bigger, she said. That it surprised her. And could she come see me?

With not a romantic word between us in seven years, and the certainty of our friendship at stake, that took courage. I was moved. I was flattered beyond description. And I admired her guts and honesty.

I also said no. It’s hard for me to explain why. I didn’t feel like it was the right time for either of us. I didn’t think that missing me was the right reason to turn our friendship into romance. I thought that distance distorted emotion. I didn’t want a trans-Pacific love affair. It all sounds like so much waffle, now.

It says something about our friendship, and a lot about Geri, that my response didn’t put a single scratch in our relationship. Over the following months, we spoke and wrote, about our lives, about work, as we always had. But that conversation stayed with me, and by the time I got serious about the job in Shanghai, I began to realize there wasn’t another woman in my life to whom I was nearly as close.

Because our friendship meant so much to me, seeing Geri as a lover seemed like a big risk. Then again, I have always been derisive about people who, on principle, would refuse to date friends. Right, I would say, you wouldn’t want to date someone you already know you really like. Much better going out with strangers.

Not long before my move, I suggested to Geri that we spend some time together, alone, in the interstice between L.A. and Shanghai. Fine, she said, but not in the fishbowl that is Sydney. With the guiding principle “In for a penny, in for a pound,” I invited Geri to the most romantic place on the planet, the island of Vatulele, in Fiji. I mean, if you’re going to try to set something to boil, you don’t start on low heat.

By the end of our time in Fiji, I was no longer fantasizing about small-breasted Asian women, and Geri was wondering if she could live happily in Shanghai.

________The rules of engagement_________

Geri visited me in Shanghai about eight weeks after I’d made it my home. Born and reared a Sydney girl, she’s not impressed by most other places and expected little of a Chinese megalopolis where she can’t speak the language. I was ready.

I prepared a Shanghai Show Bag and met her at the airport with a driver. In the show bag was the Lonely Planet guide to Shanghai, a Mandarin phrase book, an “idea itinerary” with a long list of things she might do in the city when I was at work, a cell phone, a jade necklace, and so on. The piece de resistance, however, of which I was very proud, will sound hopelessly dull to anyone who hasn’t visited a difficult foreign city. It was a tall stack of cards, handwritten with English on one side and Chinese on the other---my secretary helped---of all the places in the city Geri might possibly want to go. Although this didn’t impress Geri at first sight, I think it may later have been the thing that made her want to marry me.

When she came through customs, I greeted her with a “Chinese lei”: a long, long strand of porcelain beads to put around her neck in welcome, a reference to the greetings we received in Fiji. I then whisked her off to a suite at the Grand Hyatt for our first night. (I’m just bragging, now.) The Hyatt is at the top of the second tallest building in the world (until recently, the third tallest), so when we woke up in the morning, Geri got her first look at the city: all of it.

Over the next week and a half, we explored and wandered, ate and drank everything imaginable, moved into “our” new apartment, bought lots of little kitschy Chinese gifts for Geri’s family and friends, and generally had a ball. In all that activity, I was sly enough to set a couple of careful traps. First, and most obvious, I arranged to have a traditional tailor come and measure Geri for a handmade Chinese Qipao, the long-slitted, form-fitting dress sometimes also called a Cheongsam. Because Geri is a textile designer by training, I figured there would be few things more seductive than a classical Chinese design handmade in local silk. Second, and only slightly less transparent, was my request for Geri to choose all the curtains in the new apartment, and to come shopping with me for the bed. I was determined for the apartment to be as much hers as mine from the outset. If I sound self-congratulatory, that’s because it worked.

On a Tuesday evening, lingering over after-dinner margaritas, Geri asked me to marry her. She asked gently, quietly, holding my hands across the table, almost apologetic for perhaps pre-empting a moment I might have hoped to design, myself. I have always heard stories about couples for whom the proposal was simply the consummation of an obvious, foregone conclusion. So it was with us, and I accepted.

I also insisted that I would not be ready to ask her to marry me for at least another three weeks. In the meantime, I was engaged, but she was not. This will seem a ridiculous artifice to some, but I hadn’t even met her family, yet. Geri’s family is so important to her, I owed them the opportunity to meet me first, to offer Geri their opinion, before I asked her to make up her mind about a life with me.

So, three weeks later, on a Sunday, we spent the afternoon with, not just her parents, but the entire Hunt extended family: brother, sisters, wives, husbands, nieces, nephews and the dog. What they didn’t know was that Geri’s engagement ring was in a small box in her purse the entire time. We had bought it that morning, a vintage art deco gold ring set with rubies and diamonds.

The official story, told for the sake of decorum, is that we found it at an antique dealer in Balmain, one of Sydney’s swish neighbourhoods. This is only a minor skew off the truth. We bought it at stall 27 at the Rozelle markets, down the road from Balmain. These markets are one of Geri’s favourite haunts, a feature of most of her Sunday mornings. Imagine a flea market in the parking lot of a church. That’s Rozelle markets. That’s where we bought her ring. We wandered by this estate jewelry dealer’s stall and, when Geri put the ring on her finger, there was nothing more to consider.

Fortunately, the ring’s purchase wasn’t in vain. I don’t know what I expected---perhaps an inquisition designed to protect the youngest daughter---but everyone in her family was gracious and kind. Australians may appreciate this more than others, but they took me in so warmly that they were taking the piss out of me almost right away. Not long after we left the Hunt household, the family was on Geri’s mobile phone rendering the verdict. Apparently I was all right. I even passed the fabled “model ship test”. (I’ll spare you the details.)

The next evening, with Geri’s knowledge, I went alone after work to homestead Hunt. Geri had made sure her mum and dad, Ruth and Ian, would be there. They were surprised to see me and asked if I had business out their way. It took a few moments for the penny to drop. I asked them for their blessing. I let them know that I was not asking for permission; Geri is a fiercely independent woman who would have my hide if I asked someone else’s permission for something that was her decision. I couldn’t have hoped for a more generous reply. One of Geri’s sisters and her husband emerged from the shadows, from where they had been listening, and gave their vote of confidence, too.

I hopped into a taxi and headed to meet Geri at the Lord Nelson pub, the site of our first date, seven years earlier. She sat smiling on a barstool. I led her over to the very table at which we had our first meal together. I settled her on my lap, put my arms around her, and asked her to marry me. If you want to know what I said, you’ll have to ask her. I don’t remember a thing other than her saying yes.

After basking in our self-generated glow for a while and getting some really good champagne, Geri got on the phone to the rest of her family. They weren’t very good at acting surprised. Ruth had called them all while I was still in the taxi on the way to the Lord Nelson. It turns out Geri was the last one in the Hunt family to find out she was engaged.

Sunday, September 23, 2001

Shang High Life, #6

Shang High Life, #6
September 23, 2001

The Grateful Dead

On Monday, September 10, I got engaged to be married to Geri Hunt.

On Tuesday, September 11, the World Trade Center disappeared under the weight of jet fuel and bodies.

On Wednesday, September 12, I found out Fiona Davreux---wife of the most important man in my history (save my father), and mother of their three boys---had died suddenly a few days earlier.

I normally write in a light, slightly caddish way about whatever amusing ditty of experience happens by. I will be able to do that again. Maybe even soon. But not yet.

I have already heard too many people---taxi drivers, TV pundits---proclaim the world will never be the same. This is so obviously true that I’m frustrated at being in the path of their facile twaddle. It seems too easy to bat back at them the equal truism that the world can never be the same, day to day. They would accuse me of being a coffee-shop philosopher. So, they’re right on both counts, and I begrudge them both.

I have spent much of the time since the 11th thinking about *the* world. But I keep circling back to my own small place in it. It’s just feels too distant, too CNN, to say *the* world will never be the same. Forget *the* world for a minute; it’s too damn big to fathom. What’s got me pissed off is that *my* world will never be the same. Perhaps that’s the point that news coverage, in its attempt to nail the overwhelming geopolitical scope of WTC implications, glosses over: individually we are changed by it, each of us, one by one. We look at our previous assumptions about our lives, individually, and see them in pieces on the ground.

I have the great solace that joy is one of the reasons my life was changed, forever, that week. I have the great sadness that, simultaneously, someone so important to me is in such pain. I have, like everyone else, my own confusing set of reactions to the terrorist attacks: fury, fear, indignation, humility.

I sit here, writing, wanting to make some searing synthesis of where we now stand and what we might learn from that. But I’m neither that good nor that arrogant. Each of us finds him or herself in a different place than we did two weeks ago. For some, it was another distant event on the world stage. For some, it introduced panic that now guides their lives. But whether you perceive that you stood still and the world shook around you, or you feel like the world reached out and smacked you, it’s different now, isn’t it?

It is because of the terrorists that you are not reading the cute, circuitous story of how I got engaged. As insipid as that story might have been, it matters that you aren’t reading it. It matters that we are short one more small joy because we’re focused on….them, whoever they are, and how each of our lives will have to be different, now.

As we switch our attention to investigations and retaliations, we will leave countless more thimble-fulls of shared intimacy behind. And we won’t notice that they’re gone. They just won’t be there, and life will seem normal. If I don’t tell you the story of how Geri sat on my lap when I proposed, we are all a little less focused on what binds us. And the most important connection between us is just a little thinner. We are reduced to sharing a common fear, rather than sharing each other’s hope and wonder and giddiness.

In the aftermath of the 11th, every one I know wanted to be close to those they loved. Why? Because, in watching so many die, we felt how fragile are the connections between us and the people we love. (To sever, insert hijacker’s box-cutter.) In other words, we were shown we shouldn’t take them for granted.

If the terrorists reminded you that you might die tomorrow, they did you a favor.

I have wondered how many arrived at the World Trade Center that morning silently bitching about their jobs. I’ve wondered how many had unfinished fights with their lovers. How many were consumed with self-loathing about their waists or thighs. How many had the shits with the wanker in the next subway seat.

Those who know me well know I live driven by fear. The terrorists woke me the hell up. Some of the people in the World Trade Center died grateful for every day they had. They were the minority. I aspire to be like them.

If we live life in fear, the terrorists have won yadda yadda yadda. If we respond with hate and vengeance, we’re playing into their hands blah blah blah.

When I pull myself together, I won’t respond with fear or hate or vengeance. I’ll respond with the most profound gratitude I can muster for every one I love and every day I’m given. When I forget, shake me. Hard.

In the mean time, I’ll try to sort out which of my tears are for one life, and which are for 6,000.