September 28, 2007

Swing Low Sweet Cybercoach

I slumped into the back seat of the dark taxi cab, ready for a quiet and mindless ride home from the office. It's rare that I take a cab home, considering that Budapest's public transport system is so extensive and I rarely work late. But The Firm's been working on a huge project that's coming up to deadline, and I'd stayed at the office until at least 9:30 the last five workdays. And The Firm pays for taxis if you stay really late.

As the cabby and I exchanged the necessary small talk to establish where he was taking me, I noticed a little screen on his dashboard showing a music video. The music was coming from speakers behind me. For a moment I leaned my head back and luxuriated in the sensation of being able to relax and not force myself to keep working.

"I can turn the volume down if it's too loud for you," the cabby said. When he turned toward me, I noticed his short grey hair, wire-framed glasses riding down on his nose, and his meticulously trimmed white Van Dyke beard gave him a grandfatherly aspect.

At that moment Depeche Mode's Precious was playing.

"Oh, no. I like this."

He cranked it up. I was a bit confused.

"Is this TV or a DVD?"

"Neither," he said, "This is a PDA. I hooked it up to the car's hi fi. I just load gigabytes of music videos on it from various sources. Lots of my passengers like it."

Another video started.

"Should I turn it down?"

It was Enigma's Sadeness. (No, that's not a misspelling!)

"No, that's fine. I like this, too."

He looked back over his shoulder with a knowing smile. We have similar taste.

The whole scene began to strike me like a cyberpunk fantasy. This wasn't one of the increasing number of sleek Mercedes taxis or other late-model hacks plying the streets of Hungary's capital (the banks have figured out that making car loans to taxi drivers is a good investment). It was a somewhat seedy Opel Astra, and the setup for melding the PDA with the audio system included a few more cables and brackets than anyone with a less geeky aesthetic sense would put up with. And it just had that sleazy William Gisbon kind of hawking-high-tech-in-the-back-alley feeling that my host could pull this off by cobbling together 1) an off-the-shelf machine that's essentially an overgrown address book 2) an amplifier and two speakers, and 3) digital media from dubious sources. We live in the future. Time is getting warped.

I told him I really loved one song from Enigma's first album, called Callas Went Away. I didn't tell him that I actually once wrote a poem based on what that song meant to me. We had some communication problems with me trying to convey to him what the title meant in Hungarian, and that the song was a tribute to Maria Callas. Nonetheless, he was interested, and said he'd look for it.

I didn't recognize the next video.

"What? You don't know 'Fateless'?" the driver asked. "Here, let me show you his most famous song."

He reached out with his index finger, and while he negotiated traffic, he also deftly navigated menus on the PDA's touch screen. Until he'd queued up Faithless's We Come 1. OK, so I live in a cave. I'd heard or seen the name Faithless before. I just don't watch music television or go to clubs, or spend lots of time with people of the age who'd listen to it.

I found the video intriguing, and would even say poetic. Which is saying alot, if you consider my basic aversion to anything rap-like. I like the way events play out inside a room that would by nature take place in a larger outdoor space. It gives the action the sense of being a fantasy, or suggests that what we see is always only part of something larger. It makes it real "trippy", too. Riding in a taxi through Budapest, it was stirring when the words "cold war" echoed between verses. (Which I later realized I'd misheard. It's the distorted repetition of "come 1, come 1. come1").

The video handles the theme of duality and division very artfully, using images of street protests and riot police to embody the lyrics:

"I am the left eye/ you are the right/ would it not be madness to fight."

We pulled up to my apartment building, and we sat (with the meter stopped, naturally) and watched the video to the end before we got down to the business of paying and making the obligatory receipt. I tipped him well (I'm so generous with The Firm's money!), and we shook hands heartily. I got the sense that this had not been your average taxi ride for either of us.

Instead of dragging myself out of my seat, I found that despite working ridiculous amounts of overtime for days, my cyberpunk taxi ride had a put a bounce in my step again.

September 22, 2007

Surprise Consultation

The Firm had fully taken over the resort hotel by Friday night. Dance music flooded the foyer, and bodies bobbed in colored, dim lighting. The Firm is a wealthy and powerful multinational (about as multinational as they get; with offices in almost every country of the world), and when it takes its personnel out of town for all-company functions, it does it in a big way.

After these several hundred souls had been crammed into an auditorium as the captive audience of endless presentations for a large part of the day (and cursing the fiends who created Power Point), and then wined and dined at The Firm's expense, everyone was releasing their tensions (not only of the day, but accumulated over months!) in the massive party, as the free booze flowed.

In a big way: the entire cavernous hotel lobby had been redecorated and re-lit. A stage had been built on one end for the featured band. A wooden dance floor had been constructed to protect the permanent floor.

The party had a 60s theme. Lots of mini dresses and mini skirts. Multi-colored polka dots everywhere.

Wandering among the crowd with my glass of dry red, I stumbled upon the encampment of my colleagues. The lawyers in this firm tend to be clique-ish, and don't mix much with the other professionals. They had commandeered several long couches and long tables next to a large-screen TV running with the sound muted. It was showing a war movie, and no one was paying much attention. Many of the combatants were wearing those unmistakable Afghan hats.

As I approached them, he saw me and made eye contact. He (let's call him Peter) jumped up from the couch and came to meet me before I got very close to the rest of them. Peter had an urgent expression on his face.

"I want to ask you something," he said, leaning close to compensate for the loud music.

"My God! That sounds awfully serious," I half joked.

"Oh, it's not about you. It's about me."

"That still sounds serious."

You see: Peter and I aren't close in any way. We see each other at the office, and he lingers a minute or two to talk when he has to come consult with me about a document of his I'm editing, but the fact that I'm not a lawyer, and that I'm not Hungarian, and that I'm twice his age, and countless other factors, make it a distant (if friendly) relationship. I recall when he started at The Firm several years back, I noted that he was a strikingly handsome man, as far as I am a judge of masculine beauty. And his soulful eyes told me that he was likely sensitive and passionate. At any rate, it came as a surprise that he wanted to pour his heart out to me. And I could feel in my bones that's what was coming.

He looked into my eyes, almost pleadingly, and asked, "What do you do when a woman breaks your heart?"

I paused, aware of his eyes fixed on me. He really wanted an answer. Not a time to be flippant or dismissive. I thought, as well as one can in an environment of throbbing pop music, and a million LCDs depicting a night battle in rugged hills, complete with flashing explosions (certain clues told me what was being depicted was the siege of Tora Bora).

There was no doubt Peter had picked the right person to ask. My second wife shattered my heart so thoroughly, it took me years to gather all the pieces together again. And it took the flames evoked in that broken heart by my current wife and the children she bore me (not to mention being reunited with my first child) to fuse it back into one piece.

Is that why he came to me? Had someone in The Firm told him about my history? (Not likely, since I don't really talk about such things at work.) Or was it just that I'm old enough to be "fatherly" to him?

I knew what he wanted to know was how one got over it. And I didn't really have an answer for that. My experience was that the only thing that really made a difference was time.

He must have read my mind.

"I guess," he said, "It's just a matter of time."

I nodded. He nodded, sighed, looked down at the floor, his shoulders drooping.

"Who broke your heart?" I regretted the indiscretion as soon as I'd said it.

"I think you know."

"No, I don't."

Within a few seconds I reviewed memories of people I'd seen him socializing with. Two candidates came to mind. I'm not innocent enough to be shocked, but I was surprised, since one is married and the other has a very significant other.

He was about to turn and walk away when something occurred to me.

"There is one more thing," I said.

His eyes opened a bit wider.

"I know you probably don't feel like it now, but once you get over the initial hurt, you have to forgive her."

He didn't say anything. He just continued looking at me. He was trying to understand.

"If you don't forgive her, it will eat you up from inside. It can destroy you."

He was still silent; still watching. I decided I'd gone this far, I may as well go a little farther. The soldiers on the screen had gotten the signal to advance; scores of men with weapons running up the side of a mountain.

"My father never found it in himself to forgive my mother after she left him. I watched what it did to him. I think it slowly destroyed him. He never really got it together again. He never really learned to trust anyone or love anyone again."

Peter was nodding and his eyes had that distant look of internal reflection.

We stood there a bit longer, our drinks in our hands. On the screen, it was the morning after the battle. Some middle-aged soldiers with CIA written all over them (metaphorically that is) were combing a rubble-and-body-strewn cave for useful intelligence. One of them freaked out when he found a dialysis machine.

"That's about all the wisdom I can muster at this point," I said.

He smiled. "Thanks," he said.

He drifted back to his pals, and I walked over to one of the lawyers who's closer to my age, cocked my head in the direction of the dance floor and said, "Let's go dance." We left the legal eagles and the war in southern Asia behind, to lose ourselves in the rhythms of hundreds of bodies forgetting the pressures and the heartbreaks of daily life on this planet. Dance. Forgive. Learn to love again.