For Better or For Worse

October 25, 2009

Autumn days in the city are crisp as apples, and I get out each afternoon for a walk. Still, I’ve been on the computer far too much. Every morning I grab a roll at the Berkeley’s beloved Cheese Board, set up my café “office,” and chase writing deadlines. Freelance work has been plentiful, and helpful in covering my monthly red curry bill at Tuk-Tuk’s over on Shattuck Street.

But the work distracts me from The Ring project, which direly needs publicity in order to succeed. Auctioning the diamond might be tricky, and I’m learning to leverage the Internet to get the word out: figuring out how to Twitter, how to set up a Facebook Page.

Just when I began to doubt that anyone outside my Faceboook-borough was hearing about the auction, a miracle popped up in my Ring inbox:

My name is Subhash Ghimire and I am a senior studying political science at St. Olaf College, MN. I am a Nepali citizen.

Subhash writes for The Huffington Post and, at 22-years old, has already seen too much. For ten years, he witnessed the violence of Nepal’s civil war, and was unable to return to his home village for fear of getting abducted by Maoists. He also endured the needless death of his mother—who died because their village didn’t have a health clinic:

We could not afford to take her to Kathmandu on time, and it was too late when we brought her and she died of intestinal ulcer. It was just the matter of few hundred dollars.

I don’t want the same story to be repeated in our hinterlands.

These days, Subhash is on fire. He’s started the Sarswati Foundation to help war-affected children in Nepal, and after completing his studies in Minnesota, will return home to resume his efforts. In the meantime, he’s been invited to speak this November at the European Summit for Global Transformation in Rotterdam.

He said he’d cover my With This Ring Project for The Huffington Post.

Though it seemed too good to be true, within two weeks, Subhash delivered. I was in my office-coffeeshop when the headline flashed on my screen:

“One Woman says ‘I do’ to Engaging the World”

That morning, the normally writer-friendly café had become Romper Room, full of screeching darlings yanking on the back of my chair, and wheeling toy cars along the edge of my table. I looked around the cafe with a stink-eye, but the Buddha-master parents didn’t notice. They sipped their coffee in a noise-proof universe and my bad vibe didn’t penetrate. I huffed and read on:

Ammon’s motivation to bring smiles to suffering faces, and show them a new beginning is one path toward creating a world free of unfounded prejudice, discrimination and hatred.

It was an unbelievably grand characterization. And because that morning I felt more like a frozen pizza than a saint, the description felt that much further from the truth.

But my newfound sainthood turned out to be passing cloud anyway. By week’s end, my character was being picked-apart in the comments section of the San Francisco Chronicle.

It was about an article I had written about Scott Mason, the British falconer who trains raptors to scout thermals for paraglider pilots in Nepal. I walked into a café that Sunday morning to find the story spread across a table: two full pages, several color photos of Scott, me, and a raptor named Kevin Neophron Perncoptrus flying in front of the Himalayas.

My spine straightened. So what if no one reads the paper anymore–or if the few that do will, within a 24-hour news cycle, convert my two-page color photo spread into last-minute gift wrap, or into training papers for incontinent puppies. Getting published in the San Francisco Chronicle was the apex of my journalism career and my ego could not be quelled.

All morning, I strode around the sunny city feeling proud. The masthead reading “Nepal’s Latest Adventure Sport” was visible in every newsstand box, and sections of the paper blew across the sidewalk like inflated sails. Scott Mason’s parahawking business was about to go through the roof, and the plight of the Himalayan vultures (which is one of the Ring Projects) was reaching a half million subscribers. Indeed, I had made a mark.

I was on a writers-high, and I owned the city that morning—the skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the pretty pastel homes on Portrero Hill. The Ferry Building, I felt, was mine–along with Telegraph Hill, Dolores Park, and The Palace of the Legion of Honor. As far as I was concerned, I had dibs that morning on all the cannolis at Stella’s Bakery and all the Dim Sum in China town. The crab pots at Fisherman’s Wharf, I was certain, were bubbling for me.

I was invincible as the container ships that rode the Bay like massifs in the distance.

It was fun while it lasted.

By evening-time, everything changed as the comments section began to fill. Among several nice comments like “this looks so #!@&!-ing awesome“, were bitter comments—the road rage of people sitting anonymously behind glass screens on the Information Super Highway. Not one of them mentioned the plight of the vultures– they just flashed cyber-birds in the form of snide declarations: Must be nice to have the funds to travel! Hope you purchased your offset carbon emissions credit! Stop harassing wildlife!

The  “conversation” was joined by my well-meaning mother, who couldn’t help herself:

Chris is the most unselfish person we know. She has  never asked  for anything in her life.

Love,

Mom

That night I found myself at Argus, a dark bar in the Mission, drowning in overpriced mojitos and self-pity in the company of consoling friends. Jay has lived in San Francisco for years.

“I NEVER read the comments section,” he lied, “It’s full of crack pots.”

Perhaps. There was another article about a woman who paddled 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. Alone. She was skewered worse than I. Did that make me feel better, or worse?

“You’ve just got to put up a wall,” my friend Leon counseled. He’s been a leader in the adventure travel industry and has endured his own helpings of criticism. “These days, with the internet, people are just so happy to have a voice.”

I’m was sure he was right. But maybe they were right, too. Though they had long moved on to shred the next news item, an internal argument sparked in my head the whole next day:
Attack: Your writing is too cheeky.
Defense: Maybe. But you just try soaring with raptors and not gloat a little!

Attack: Editors and instructors tried to warn you about writing in first-person!
Defense: But how do you write about something as intensely experiential as this in the third person!

Attack: Flying around for the sake of travel is a huge polluting waste! Some environmentalist you are!
Defense: But eco-tourism is helping save tracts of rainforest that would otherwise be cut down. Travelers have built schools, hospitals, and houses across the world. And I was calling attention to the plight of endangered Himalayan Vutures! What are YOU doing???

Attack: You are extravagant to get to travel like this.
Defense: But I’ve lived out of my van and house-sat for the last two years! And Nepal is cheap!

By the following evening, I was exhausted. I wondered if I was really up for all of this—journalism, selling the ring. Maybe I wasn’t good enough yet to pull all of this off.

But then I had this other thought.

Just in the way that I didn’t sit around and wait to feel like A Writer in order to write, I shouldn’t sit around and wait to do good things until I feel like a Very Good Person. I should just try and do good things, and worry about becoming A Good Person later. No excuses.

It’s true that I’ve wondered sometimes about my motivations to sell the ring. Is it true altruism, which Parade magazine savant, Merilyn, says doesn’t exist? Or does the auction process just serve as interesting fodder for my writing? Am I doing it just to feel good on my own part and, if I am, is this wrong?

Is it so bad to take advantage of an exquisite aspect of human brain wiring–that to do something which makes someone else feel better, happens also to make ourselves feel better, which kick-starts a wonderful feedback loop that hopefully takes everyone higher, and saves us from living like total wretches?

I don’t know.

But I think for the Nepalese child who’ll get to go to school, or the raptor who’ll fly free again, I’m thinking they won’t care why I sold the ring—whether I’m fully A Good Person or A Very Bad Person, or something in-between. They’ll just be super glad I did.

www.withthisringproject.org

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Finding the One

October 15, 2009

One month before the auction begins. My optimism has been fragile, and I go from a Goethe-like boldness that it WILL work, possibly better than I ever dreamed, to this’ll- never-work.

The signs from the universe have been mixed.

In the departure lounge in the Portland airport, I did some cursory research on my laptop. One website, Jewelry Secrets, dished tons of advice for auctioning diamonds: post on ebay,  include the 4 “C”s–cut, clarity, color, and carats. Include a good photo, set a fair price. The website made it seem like a snap:

It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s addicting! Once you sell your first piece of Jewelry on Ebay, once you get that first taste, you’ll be hooked!  You’ll want to run through the streets and scream “Ebay! Ebay! Ebay!”

But the actual sales on Ebay told a bleaker story. 71,229 diamond rings languish on the site like unwanted pound puppies. They come in of every variety: some set in white gold, some in platinum. There are Rose cuts, Emerald cuts, Princess cuts, and Radiant cuts. There are bands and solitaires. They range wildly in price– from $16.00 to $350,000–but share one characteristic: no bids.

Another discouraging sign: I read a story  in The Smithsonian that detailed the geologic origin of diamonds—how they formed over a billion years ago,  100 miles below the earth’s surface where titanic heat and  pressure turned carbon into diamonds. The gems were then lifted to the surface by underground volcanoes in a process that is miraculous, ancient, and mystifying.

Or at least it was, until Robert Linares came along.

In 1996, Linares was experimenting in his garage, and discovered the precise mixture of gases and temperatures needed to make a diamond. The process, called chemical vapor deposition (CVD), passes a carbon gas cloud over diamond seeds in a chamber heated to more than 1,800 degrees. The carbon crystallizes on top of the seed, and a diamond is born–one that is virtually indistinguishable from a natural one.

The implications of this, of course, are unsettling for the diamond industry–which relies on the public perceiving diamonds as rare and difficult-to-come-by. And, by extension, it’s unsettling for me in my new role as an amateur diamond-seller.

But while it may now be true that diamonds can be forged in a Chemical Deposition Machine, friendship still can not, and my network of friends have been astonishingly supportive. They’ve forwarded the URL  around, and cheered me on.

“This is going to catch fire!” IMed Josh.

My friend, Greg, a reporter in Las Vegas, sees huge news potential: “I think this could go “viral,’ as the techie kids say, in a big way.”

“I feel suuure the universe is going to support you on this one” my yoga instructor said, placing her foot behind her head.

And on my Facebook wall, Mary: Putting in a call to Oprah right now!”

But though my friends have no doubt, they have no money either, and not one has mentioned bidding. In fact, Lisa has been drowning in paperwork all week, trying to catch up on bills–and pay  last years’ taxes. My friend, Will, is pre-occupied with how to cover the cost of the $800 hole his pet Airedale just chewed in his hang glider. And the other day, my friend Jeanie hit me up with her own fundraising scheme: “Can you pitch in $50.00 to help send Naga-Das to this Buddhist retreat?” Naga is an aspiring ascetic. He’s whittled his diet down to coffee, brown rice, and peanut butter– which he eats straight from the jar with chopsticks. I couldn’t say no.

But to sell the ring, I realized I’d have to reach out beyond my beloved circle of friends. My ring buyer was probably  not  going to be hanging out at $2 margarita night, or shopping for ‘new’ boots at Second Hand Rose. They were not going to be found scoring ‘perfectly good’ cranberry-walnut bread from the dumpster behind the local bakery.

What I needed was to find someone with a good heart AND a spare $22,000.

Then, suddenly, I found one.

Richard was sitting next to me on a flight to San Francisco. Both graduates of the University of Oregon’s journalism school, we formed an instant bond. Seemed like we’d known each other forever. Instant best friends.

“Damn. If I’d known about this ring 6 years ago, I’d have bought it!”

Richard dug his fingers into a bag of airline peanuts, and began to reminisce:  he and his wife got married right after college. They were broke– living on food stamps at the time–and so he couldn’t afford a lavish engagement ring. He found one that was nice enough, but promised that someday he would buy her the ring she deserved. Twenty-five years later, he came through on his promise, surprising her with a $20,000 3-carat canery yellow diamond. For the first time in her life, his chatty wife went silent. She was doing the ‘fish-lip’ thing, he explained– moving her mouth but with no sound coming out.

“It’s a big honkin’ ring.”

Our plane skimmed over the San Francisco Bay, coming in for a landing. Richard looked at me. I think he interpreted my sentimental expression as longing.

“Are you married yet?”

“Nope.”

He clicked on the overhead light, creating shadows across his face. He leaned in:

“I’m going to make you a bet.”

“What?”

“That in five years you are married with a kid.”

Clearly, my new best friend had only known me for an hour-and-a-half.

“What are we betting?”

“A drink in any city in the world.”

I started combing through my list: London, Paris, Prague …

“Fez.”

I got off  BART at the North Berkeley station. As I lugged my bags toward my friend Joe’s house where I’d be house-sitting for three weeks, I inhaled deeply. The yards in Berkeley are filled with trumpet flowers and blooming lavender, and make me long for my own place.  Two years of wandering around have scattered my heart, career, and community across the country, and as I bounce between places trying to have everything, I must reckon with the smoking crater this adventure has left in my bank account.  Plane tickets, storage unit fees, and too much take-out are taking their toll.

I drifted to sleep with an optimistic thought about my diamond: If a billion years, tremendous heat, and volcanic pressure no longer make my diamond special, then giving 20 Nepalese kids a shot at an education,  releasing a flock of rehabilitated raptors, and sending Oumar Coulibay to nursing school will.

Robert Linares can fiddle around with Chemical Vapor Deposition in his garage forever. No amount of tinkering can take this away.

www.withthisringproject.org

Cold Feet

September 22, 2009

You start small. With a rock. Place it in your left hand. Give it to your right hand. Give it back. Repeat as often as necessary.

This is a generosity practice given to me by my friend Jeanine. Her Buddhist teacher explained that the visceral experience of letting something go–even something as relatively worthless as a rock—is useful in getting rid of stinginess and attachment.

It’d be a good exercise for me. More and more I’ve been noticing the ways I angle for my own benefit: the bigger plate of gnocchi, the fuller glass of merlot. And the ways I can’t let go: of relationships, or a certain pairs of jeans that “I might just wear again someday.” I’m even anxious about things I might need in the afterlife. Today, when the clerk at the DMV asked if I’d register as an organ donor, I balked before saying ‘yes.’ What if I’ll need my liver?

I’m thinking of all this because as the With This Ring Project website nears completion, I’m feeling tense. Having second-thoughts. What if it’s a complete failure? What if I regret this later? How will I be judged? What if I become an avid diamond collector 20 years from now, or someday find myself a bag lady in need of spare funds?

But on the brink of any big commitment, who doesn’t get cold feet?

Just this morning an IM from my friend, Josh, popped up on my computer screen. Josh has been on an interminable quest for The One, and has dated many women:  a biologist, a jewelry-maker, a poet.

“I feel like a heel.” He typed.

He’d broken up with another woman.  She was gorgeous, worldly, spoke fluent French. For a while he was sure she was ‘it’– so sure that he invited her to live in his Oregon house. But as shipments of her furniture began to arrive from Florida, so did a freight of doubts. I think this is moving too fast, he fretted.

A fellow Sagittarius, Josh and I commiserate over our trouble with commitment. Romantic indecision seems writ in our stars.  Even as we profess desire of partnership, we remain unmarried in our mid-thirties, archers afraid to surrender.

But brain scientists and the Dalai Lama are saying that the key to happiness is truly giving yourself to someone and something—a cause, a lover, a child. If this is true, than so is the opposite: The key to misery is not giving yourself. So, as I snatch the last cold beer out of the fridge and mince and fret about auctioning the ring, Josh’s Facebook status update flashes on my screen like a dire warning:

Time wounds all heels.

Start small. With a rock.

www.withthisringproject.org