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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

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Sunday, February 06, 2005

Vie en Rues #2

La Vie en Rues, #2
February 6, 2005

Toys, Sticks, Cops, and a Wheelchair

I’ve written a grand total of two letters, over the last year, to this list of nefarious malcontents I call friends and family. Two. One said, in sum, “Look! We’re in Paris!” The next came more than 8 months later, and said, at great length, “Bush is going to win, and I’m not happy about it.”

It’s a crappy record. I prided myself on delivering regular screeds, wanted or not. Now, I have destroyed my brand as an unfailing correspondent. More than one person contacted me asking why they had been struck from the list. No excuses: only mea culpa maxima.

But it isn’t guilt that delivered this missive to your mailbox. In ceasing the trail of letters, I cut myself off from many of you. Make no mistake: you are on this list because you’re important to me. Life is poorer without some connection to you. So, this letter is the beginning of reversing my recent silence, and re-establishing an old, good habit.

New Year’s resolutions have become unfashionable due only to their proclaimers’ lack of resoluteness. Bucking fashion, I have resolved for 2005 to get back on the horse that is the chair at my writing desk. And to ride it regularly.

If you don’t feel like reading the lengthy version—right back in the unchanged style of florid, overblown prose I proudly brandish—here is the bumper sticker version: Life is good. Count me happy and thankful.

* * *

I have wondered, of late, , however, if I’m experiencing a pre-mature mid-life crisis.
On the one hand, it doesn’t fit. I’m only 37. I don’t feel I’ve missed the exuberance and opportunities of youth. I’m passionately in love with my wife. I think sports cars are a waste of money. I don’t feel emasculated by my job.

On the other hand, there’s a bit of evidence piling up in the affirmative. I have recently begun buying toys. I am indulging in a youthful past-time untouched for almost 20 years. I have enthusiastically joined a Paris “scene” that involves hanging out with folks way younger and way hipper than me.

Evidence began to accumulate six weeks ago. Scheduled to give a speech at a sales conference in Bangkok, I got a further, unanticipated invitation. It began with, “You play drums, don’t you?” Long pause. Me: “Uh, not for, like, 20 years.”

It is an indication of the group’s desperation that, a month later, I found myself on a stage in front of a couple hundred people---many of whom were Chinese salesmen---playing a kit for the first time since I’ve had a regular job. Picking up an instrument after a long time away is decidedly *not* like riding a bike. It is, perhaps, like riding a bike after your knees have been fused and your hands have been cut off. You can’t pedal or steer, and you fall off a lot.

I was awful. Saving me, however, was the relative quality of the rest of the band. We were all awful. In short, we sounded precisely like what we were: a bunch of near- or firmly middle aged corporate types impersonating rockers. The audience was wildly supportive, I think because they took us about as seriously as we took ourselves. And because they’d had as much to drink as our lead singer.

I can say, unreservedly, that donning a tie-dye shirt and playing Rolling Stones covers in front of a corporate sales convention is a poor approximation of the rock-god experience. I can also say, without embarrassment, that I was transported. I’ll cop the cliché: sitting behind a drum set felt like coming home. I played more or less seriously for 15 years, from the time I was 5, then quit cold-turkey. Sitting at that set in Bangkok, everything good about playing surged back, even though playing, itself, was a struggle.

At the end of the short set, I did have one true rock-god moment. The crowd, in a fit of drunken magnanimity, encouraged us to go on, but I had to run from the stage to a waiting car to catch my midnight plane to Paris. By the time I landed, the spark had caught, and I was wondering why I hadn’t played in so long. All I could think of was getting a kit.

That’s a problem. We live in an apartment. Drums are---and this is their principal charm---obnoxiously loud. Little is more satisfying, viscerally, than bashing the shit out of a drum set and waking the devil. I reconciled myself to this being at odds with city apartment living. Still, there would be a period of lament and longing before I gave up the dream to pick it all up again.
That longing took me through the doors of Paris’s best drum specialist shop. It was immediately obvious that little about drum sets has changed in the last 15 years. Also obvious was the one notable exception to this generalization. You know, you really can do anything with computers, these days.

There, set up at the front of the store, like a challenge to every apartment-dwelling drummer’s frustrations, was a silent drum kit. No mere set of practice pads, this, but a full-size kit of drums incapable of any noise but that pumped at swelling volumes into the headphones of the drummer.

I scoffed. Electronic drums. Yeah, right. Eighties synth crap. This is plywood to those wanting oak. Margarine to those with a taste for butter. Masturbation in lieu of sex.

Still. A re-lit fire gapes for fuel. Tentatively, doubtfully, scoffingly, I sat down. I put on headphones. I brought a stick down on the black pad pretending, unconvincingly, to be a snare drum.

I have had few moments of revelation like that one. The tightest wooden snare I’d ever heard. Cymbals? Circles of black plastic convincing me they were Turkish hand-hammered brass. Hit a tom: the sound of birch shell with an Emperor-coated head. I played for an hour sounding awful to no-one, because only I could hear how awful I played. But mostly what I heard was how magical the kit sounded.

On Wednesday, they deliver mine. On Thursday, I rock.

Around this same time, Geri and I decided we’d do something we’d thought about but never acted on. We’d seen the spectacle often, enough: in fact, every Friday night and Sunday afternoon. The first time was on a visit before moving here. Sitting at a café, we were wondering why the street had gone quiet when three tight-bunned, snugly clad cops in flashy helmets shot by on roller skates. After a moment only long enough to afford curious glances, the following skaters flooded our view. They continued to pass for long enough that lunch got cold.

Twice each weekend, so long as the roads are dry, they skate. The cute cops shut down a meander of Paris streets several kilometers long, yellow-shirted volunteers safe-guard intersections, and thousands of wheeled feet follow. Immediately on their tail are a few hundred cyclists and, bringing up the rear, three ambulances, whose principal function is to block the wake of eager traffic.

We are the latest additions to this motley cavalry. But it required equipment. So, we got equipped. We haven’t yet worked up the courage to join the Friday night outing, from midnight to 2am, but the Sunday skate has us glad we got wheels. It’s a high. But it’s got little to do with the skating.

More than anything else, the joy of it is in feeling like a part of Paris. For two and half hours, you’re moving through the streets of one of the world’s most beautiful cities with a couple thousand people who are all having a good time together, shouting encouragement to beginners, and getting sweaty.

It says a lot about Paris that this has become a weekly ritual: rollerbladers with a police escort. I’m not sure what it says, exactly, but it’s a lot. And I like it.

Having been in the thick of it, now, I’m even more impressed by the skaters, themselves. It is a much wilder assortment than I would ever have imagined. For starters, there are so many older skaters: serious numbers of groovers in their 50s and 60s, and a few older still. And, Paris being an extremely multi-cultural city, there is no demographic or diaspora unrepresented. Parents on skates push babies in prams. Boyfriends pull girlfriends and girlfriends pull boyfriends. The speedsters, the dawdlers, the hot-dogs, the chatters. I have even discovered a new genus: the fat gay Asian skate-punk.

At one point on my maiden outing, I was beginning to hurt. It’s two and a half hours, and we were only about an hour in. I was questioning the depth of my desire to finish as a slight incline impolitely challenged my thighs. That’s when the guy in the wheelchair passed me.
I *will* have buns like those cops. I will.

Work continues to be engaging, most of the time, and I’m incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to do what I do, even if I spend too many hours a week doing it.

On the other side of the family, there have been bigger changes. After a tough first year adjusting to Paris, Geri has thrown herself into a frenetic schedule of study and work. She has begun a full course load of pre-requisites toward an eventual Master’s in psychotherapy, studying at distance with the State University of New York. Her perspicacity and immaculate, fluid writing are forcing her instructors to prove her self-assessments happily wrong.
Complimenting that, she’s just finished several months of training to become a counselor with an organization in Paris. This has brought into our lives a fascinating community of English speakers of wildly varied backgrounds. Geri’s also re-opened her artist’s eyes with a couple of painting courses.

Business at Hotel Spencer remains brisk. We are grateful Paris is a city so many people we love want to visit. We’ve got clean towels and a spare set of keys, but book ahead!
And bring your rollerblades and drum sticks.

Cheers. --h