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August 06, 2008

The Road We're On

Yes there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There's still time to change the road you're on

On the pages of my high school year book, a few carefully selected lines of text appear beneath the photograph of each graduating senior. Most students chose a song lyric. One girl - a friend of mine - picked the verse above. She was the only girl I ever viewed as serious competition in the dating department. She even looks rather like me, though she is far prettier than I ever was: a slim, sarcastic brunette with wispy bangs and big brown eyes. We sang together in the senior combo. She was always a better vocalist, but I was wittier. Though to hear some people tell it this can only have been a relative advantage since the female of the species is apparently incapable of the truly sophisticated brand of humor men must keep on offer if they hope to attain Shangri-la. In my snarkier moments, I have often wondered if the existence of this theory conclusively proves Chris Hitchens right? You must admit it does have its humorous aspects.

Saturday evening ended up being a trip in more ways than one. After a desultory morning spent rolling about in bed we drove in to my brother's to see a concert with...

[wait for it...]

...the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra playing Led Zeppelin. As the esteemed spousal unit is wont to say, "Oh baby, oh baby, oh baby...", do we know how to have fun, or what?

On the rainy drive into the city we chatted about the upcoming event. Characteristically, the Unit and my sister in law had already Googled up the playlist. I found the notion, as I find most things in life, highly diverting. The Princess, you see, doesn't like having advance expectations. I'd far rather be surprised.

I enjoy anticipation; having a bit of suspense to break up the daily routine. Is this a defense against the unpredictability of military life? Or against boredom? I'm not sure it matters much, really, in the end. We can make all the plans we like - and I sometimes do. But our best intentions notwithstanding, we end up adapting to the reality on the ground. Why get wrapped around the axle, wedded to expectations that may not pan out? So few of our machinations survive contact with the myriad events we fail to anticipate. I prefer to go with the flow.

Splashing through puddles on the city street, the last three decades of my life scattered around my feet like cherry blossoms after a spring rain. It's a bit surreal seeing kids half your age sporting the clothes and hairstyles you favored in high school. Tight, flared jeans, halter tops and dresses, platform sandals. Just as we found our seats and began sipping a long overdue beer, the music began.

And to my utter delight, contrary to the wry, self-conscious jokes we'd made on the ride in what we heard next turned out to be not quite what any of us expected. Even me, the one who thought she had no expectations. You see, we'd been fooled by the symphony orchestra bit. We thought we'd signed up for a few hours of mostly acoustic music; Lawrence Welk stuff. Hold the bubble machine but pass the funny looking cigarettes (wink wink, nudge nudge). This, however, was a full on rock concert. It was Led Zeppelin, not some re-creation or interpretation of the music of our mostly misspent youth. The songs were still the same, it was still magic and there I was, transported back to the summer of 1973. I could feel my long hair cascading down my back, smell the perfume I wore then on my skin and scent of my slightly damp, freshly washed hair; feel the comforting touch of my favorite bright green tube top and (yes) those faded, too-short cutoff denim shorts my Dad never would let me wear out of the house. My best friend and I are lying on the living room floor, listening to my Dad's speakers boom out the bass guitar. Any minute now, he'll come up from the basement and tell me to turn the darned things down before I blow them out. Heh...:

Only good music can do this to you - take you on a trip back in time. I close my eyes and let the music course through my veins like heroin. Amazing. I am there, again. I wonder where she is, tonight? Does she remember sometimes, too?

As the opening bars of Kashmir stream out into the night the crowd begins to jump to its feet. To my intense amusement, I wonder whether the 40-something blonde a few rows in front of us is going to rip her shirt off and toss it into the crowd. She does enjoy her music, that one. I lean over to ask my brother how long he thinks it would take her and he gives me that simultaneously scandalized/delighted/horrified look only younger brothers give their older sisters.

This is turning out to be much more fun than I'd thought it would be.

The blonde's husband - a bearded dude - has returned to his seat and is busily trying to pick a fight with two guys in the row behind him. They had the unbelievable temerity to ask them to sit the hell down so they could see the performance from the seats they paid good money for. Or maybe they are hoping his wife will take her shirt off? I don't know - from where I'm sitting it doesn't look like that great a prospect, but one can never tell. The nerve of some people!

Three ditzy blondes saunter down from the lawn and stand right in front of us for no apparent reason other than that (apparently) they can. They are staring vacuously at the stage, talking about the unbearable cluelessness of being an airhead with no manners at a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert. I am loving every minute of the show - both the one going on one the stage and the one in the audience. Full marks to my sister in law for suggesting the idea.

What is it about music that has the power to unite even people who seem to have so little in common?

As my eyes travel over the crowd I see people of all ages; every size, shape, color, and (if outward appearances are any indication) political persuasion. Men with comb overs, polo shirts, and Docksiders perch next to guys with ponytails, jeans and Grateful Dead t-shirts. Women with chic angled haircuts, manicured fingernails and frosted blonde highlights are juxtaposed next to those sans makeup, their long hair looking little different than it must have when they were in high school, though they probably have daughters that age now.

The show is almost over now. I find myself oddly moved by the look mirrored on a hundred, a thousand different faces in the crowd around me. Music has done that to us. It is something we all share, though it doesn't mean the same thing to any two of us. We are lost in time, lost in our memories. The faces around me are softened for a moment, oddly vulnerable; open. In them, I can see echoes of an old girlfriend, a first date, a midnight ride on a summer night down a deserted road with all the windows down and the stereo turned up as loud as it will go.

A broken promise.

The sun, setting on a beach during a summer that seemed to go on and on.

The band begins to play Stairway to Heaven, and a hush falls over the crowd as thousands of people begin to sing along:

And it's whispered that soon, if we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason

For one moment, for one magic space in time, this disparate crowd seem fused. It is an illusory feeling, but precious nonetheless. I don't want to let go.

It's hokey, and sentimental, and the only way to describe it is that you really had to be there. I think, suddenly, and for no reason, of Linda Ferrara and the words she spoke when she lost her son Matthew:

All of humanity is our tribe.

Many people would also describe those words as syrupy - a throwaway sentiment. I just remember that they cut through me like a knife.

There are certain things which connect us as human beings. We may differ on how to achieve what we want, but in the end most of us do want the same things for our families. I think we forget that at our peril. I wondered, that night, how long that feeling would last once we left. I knew it wouldn't be long.

I read soon afterwards that in Iraq at the checkpoints, the Iraqis no longer ask: "Are you Sunni, or Shiite?"

For years, when she approached Iraqi Army checkpoints and produced an identification card for soldiers to study for clues about her sect, Nadia Hashim used a simple formula to signal the mostly Shiite Muslim force that she, too, is a Shiite.

"I am one of you," she'd say.

The soldiers would harass Sunnis, but they'd simply wave Hashim through.

Now her pat line gets her an official reproach.

When a relative used it recently, a soldier admonished the driver and the passengers. "'We are Iraqis, and you shouldn't say such a thing,' " recalled Hashim.

The 35-year-old mother of three said that for her and countless other Iraqis, the fact that soldiers are now using nationalist rather than sectarian language is a significant change. Being a Shiite is no longer key to her survival.

With violence subsiding throughout Baghdad, residents said that sectarianism is becoming less pervasive. They're starting to think of themselves as Iraqis, not as hostages to hyphenated, sectarian identities.

Residents said they visit relatives in neighborhoods of opposite sects. Taxi drivers said they can travel around blast walls to neighborhoods outside their own sect. Sunnis can get medical care at Shiite-run hospitals.

Shiites can share a minibus with Sunnis without fearing that they'll be signaled out at an illegal checkpoint. Teachers no longer feel pressure to give students of one sect higher grades than they give their classmates in another sect.

Most Iraqis, however, aren't convinced that the drop in sectarian violence, now at its lowest levels since March 2004, according to the U.S. military, will last.

Now we have a presidential candidate who seems to be going out of his way to tell us, every chance he gets, that though if you turn off your TV set and just listen to him talk, he sounds just like us, he is not like us.

He doesn't look like us, you see. He isn't like those other presidents on the dollar bill, whatever that means. He isn't like the other people who spoke in Berlin (Condi Rice and Colin Powell notwithstanding). I am not quite sure how we are ever to get beyond race, beyond the political divisiveness that continues to tear this country apart if a man who aspires to be our leader is going to indulge in this kind of ridiculous rhetoric.

We know he is half black. Anyone with half a brain can see this. We do not need to be informed of it, and it is beyond stupid for him to tell us he is trying to run a campaign that is above race when he is telling potential voters that his opponents are going to "scare" them by telling them what anyone with a pair of eyes in their head can plainly see.

He's black. Duh. Is this news?

There are so many things we in this melting pot nation of ours have in common. We share a great culture. We share a love of beautiful things. We can focus on the things which help us rise above our differences, which make us proud to be Americans, which give us reason to celebrate our common heritage. Or, like Bob Herbert, we can go dumpster diving for penises in the hope of generating gratuitous offense where none was intended.

Oddly, one of the memories of my mostly misspent youth was of this song:

I wonder how many of you remember it? It is one of the first I learned to play as a young girl on the piano. It makes little sense, now.

That is one of the many things that have changed in America. One more cause for celebration, and a measure of how silly the current navel gazing over political ads has become.

There's still time to change the road we're on. America can do better.

Far better.

Posted by Cassandra at August 6, 2008 06:50 AM

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Heh. Janis Ian was one of the few "contemporary folk" artists on my playlist when I deejayed.

Ummmm -- which gives you an idea of how long ago *that* was...

Posted by: BillT at August 6, 2008 11:30 AM

"There are certain things which connect us as human beings. We may differ on how to achieve what we want, but in the end most of us do want the same things for our families. I think we forget that at our peril."

I completely agree. The more involved I become in this blogging thing, the more I feel we as a nation need to find things we do agree on. The more we need to remember people on both sides love this country and want what is best for her and for our children.

Posted by: Kat at August 6, 2008 01:00 PM

♪ There's still time to change the road you're on. ♪

Indeed; while there's life, there's hope.

I hope enough voters figure it out while there's still time...

Posted by: camojack at August 7, 2008 01:16 AM

"I learned the truth at seventeen..."

Talk about memories...

Posted by: Cricket at August 7, 2008 09:33 AM

Sadly, YouTube servers say the Janis Ian video is no longer available. But Cricket's hint helped with pulling the song title out of my head.

Posted by: Patrick at August 7, 2008 12:10 PM

Funny. It must have been a glitch - I just clicked and got it. Anyone else have that problem?

Posted by: Cassandra at August 7, 2008 12:35 PM

It was Society's Child, actually.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 7, 2008 12:35 PM

We had a wonderful English Lit teacher in high school for the gifted classes. She allowed us to bring our favorite albums to listen to when we were doing units on ballads and folk singers and their ability to tell stories, discuss hurtful things through music.

I was a bit of a sap. I liked John Denver. Janis Ian though, grabbed my attention.

Posted by: Cricket at August 7, 2008 01:16 PM