Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dates, deadlines, and lists

   I signed a check last week. My union dues. I like that I'm still paying my dues. I like even more that I belong to a union. Makes me feel at home. That I'm somehow still part Pittsburgher. Part of the Pittsburgh that's always mattered most to me. In touch with my ancestors and in their company, strengthened by numbers and not alone in the illusion that one can go it alone
   When I signed I noticed it was November 12th. The day after the WWI Armistice. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and all that. 11/12/13.
   And look. 11/12/13. Next year on December 13th it'll be the last time for a century we have a consecutive date line. 12/13/14. And that, 100 years from the beginning of the First World War.
   Why stuff like this matters to me, or strikes me I have no idea but it does.
   Maybe we all search for signs that there's a path out there, that there's a guiding hand, an order that can be counted. And when you sift through data there's some meaning to be gleaned.
   Or maybe it's just about mortality. When you can spot when you're gonna die somehow dates and time aren't just numbers. Or they are and that's what's scary. Numb numbers and inside one of them you cease to be counted.
   I read today that the Japanese want to build another high speed train line from Tokyo to Osaka. It'll be finished in 2045. When I read that, I started. Literally did an internal double take as I realized there's a good chance I'll never see that day. The death we all carry around inside us gave me a kick.
   Someone will turn a calendar over, flip a page in a planner, wave their hand in front of a virtual screen and it will be the day after I've died. Poof, you go from being angelic animated mud to dust in a day.
  JFK was shot half a century ago tomorrow. I was watching one of the myriad specials about his "anniversary" when the narrator said, "Kennedy landed at Dallas airport around noon that November day and was dead within the hour." His ears still ringing from Airforce One on the runway. Poof. Air through a keyhole. Any given day.
  One of my favorite parts of AS Byatt's novel "Possession" has to do with lists. Writing as I'm doing right now with my mind jumping from thought to thought, from Union dues to Dealy Plaza, from one image to another that in my brain lay behind the same darkness on the same canvas or that live in my brain tied together in a huddle and I'm trying pull them out - it's erratic and sometimes I feel like I'm doing what I hate to see writers do which is make lists…. "What I've been pondering this week"……"My top ten ___" fill in the blank.
   It grates on me this filling of space, the filling in of blanks with mediocre effort. The column has to come out on Wednesday so this Wednesday we'll make a list.
  The soldier in me, the guy who still thinks men should wear ties to work and jackets at dinner, he  thinks if you're paying to read my magazine or my paper, if you literally buy the magazine to read a column then this column should be made with care. You should feel it in framework of the prose.
   I had an acting teacher who once said "I don't go to the theater to watch people be themselves. I go to be astonished."
   When I read Adam Gopnik or Joanne Acocella or Updike or Amiri Baraka I feel like I'm walking thru a finely built home. A thing made to demonstrate some kind of love toward the inhabitants. Toward the visitors.
  I don't want to know what they had for brunch that day or what they may or may not be working on. I don't want to know what Gopnik's 5 favorite flavors of Gelato are. These are things he'd tell his friends. And as my friend Denise once captured on film, a man with the t-shirt, "Fuck you, I have enough friends."
  Now obviously I'm advocating for the devil here. It's a linguistic knot I'm tying myself into, the cords made partly of belief and partly practice. I tell myself if I wrote for the New Yorker I'd never ever write a blog. Well I never will but here I am thinking somehow a blog has some merit…..that the levels of incompletion can have beauty to them, curiosity, informal merit.
  Which brings me back to Byatt- the lead character in her novel is a British academic tightly described as tightly wound, intellectual to a fault, coldly beautiful but as the book draws to a close she realizes, we realize, that she's something of a poet. Her heart can't live within her professional bounds any longer and she... unwinds. She reaches a kind of stasis, a bottom, and then finds herself making lists. Of words. Just columns of language, stacks of nouns that strike her, hard verbs in her hand, and Byatt makes a quick argument that this is really how poetry and song start. How they get made. Shapes that fit next to each other, that sound fine one after the other, paired with thoughts that repeat again and again in a dream order that puzzles the will.
  Poetry is the unpuzzling. Singing the simplest thing we can make of the puzzled dream. What did Frost say when a student asked him what his poem meant?
  "If I could say it any clearer I would have."
  So I'm piling up my thoughts where they seem to go together. Looking for clarity in a bloody mess. Patterns in the field where I've run tracks across the trails of any guiding hand. Digging like a good union man and trying to make something worth the company stamp. Shouldn't be embarrassed that it's not custom. Not made with finish.
   I get it. Blogs are exercising in public. Letting the folks on the street watch the building go up. And yeah, sometimes as the man on the curb, I want them to stop and just leave the frame. All that steel drawn and angled against the sky. No more, no more. It's perfect just like that.
  Today's November 21st. One month from the Solstice, that brief beautiful day which for me has a simple import. A real festival. Ritual given inverse strength by the brevity of the sun. And in the shadow of Christmas….like the family bakery still in business next to the Nabisco plant.
   One week ago, my close friend George... his wife Michelle had twins. Two years from the day of my brother's death. I held them in their first living hour as I held my brother in his last. Held their hands. 6 pounds 15 ounces, 6 pounds 7 ounces. Phil didn't see 50.
  All these digits. Dates, times, measures and markers. Scratched onto paper. Carved into rock. Birth certificates and headstones. Fed into a server. Knicked into a dial so when we come back around again we can say where we were? Nah.
  Left there for someone to see when we're long gone. For someone to lay their hands on and find us in the details. The living will count our numbers, draw our letters through their fingers and feel among them the hands of the dead, working.


  1. I am so tempted to write a little list here of all the ways this spoke to me, but I respect you too much to mess with you like that. :)

    I'm turning 40 in May and it is KILLING me. My mortality is just slapping me in the face all the time lately. I drive to town, look at Pittsburgh bustling and pulsing and say to myself, "The day I die, nothing will stop. It will pulse on. Crap."

    This nearing of 40. I never thought it would make me do so much math in my head. But I do. "Do I have 30 more good years left? Look how fast these 40 went. My kids will be this old when I'm this old. What will it be like when my four sisters and I are old and falling away? How old will my children live to be? Will they worry about death and mortality like this?" These are terrible questions to have bouncing around in the very mortal brain, and I bet as someone who recently lost a brother and a father, you have different, even harder questions in yours.

    I'm starting to understand why people buy Ferraris during their mid-life crises.

    So I'm searching, too, for the comforting order in the chaos -- and in the searching I am completely missing the point of faith.

    I'm guilty of all of those blogging sins you've named. Been blogging too many years now. But on the bright side, you and others like you make me want to be a better writer.

    P.S. Regarding your other post. I'm not fully convinced it wasn't satire and you actually hate the Internet. But just in case, can I interest you in a Twitter account? Grin.

    1. It just spins around us these days doesn' it? You sense your "young" self sliding right off your skin, but clinging. I'm still there!
      But I'm fading. Kind of amazing to watch it happen. Kind of …cool, actually. I mean when I'm 60- if I ever am 60- and my knees are crap and my hair's grey Im sure it will be less cool but this autumn of life is kind of astonishing.
      Ginny you're a concise and on-point writer who always empresses me - someone whose efforts seem almost entirely geared toward community, contact, and exchange.

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  3. I'm had to hear I'm not the only one who thinks about their own mortality. I thought twice about the date 12/13/14 and thought as my dad would have said, I'll be dust when that date comes around again and it freaks me out. It sucks to think about things like that but as you get older and start to lose the ones closest to you I think you can't help it. I guess that's why we have to live every minute to the fullest. I hope your Thanksgiving is a blessed one and let's all be thankful for who and what we have in our lives.

  4. What is about numbers that catches at the corner of our consciousness? Whether it's the pattern formed by a specific date or the looming of a significant birthday, they register and stick. My mother died days before her 49th birthday and, as I approached mine I held my breath, as if it were a foreshadowing of my own destiny. It wasn't, of course, but as people slip from our lives, marking more dates in that internal calendar, I feel myself making my way to my own end time—the seventeen year old lingers within but her hold is weakening. Tomorrow never comes, that overused, yet accurate phrase, comes to mind. There is only today and one day today will end and take me with it.

  5. amazing,waiting for next post. you are pure talent

    Jose Padron

  6. Here, in Europe, we write the date differently (day first, then month). My 11/12/13 hasn't arrived yet, and I will never have a 12/13/14 - unless some crazy dictator changes the whole calendar again, which I deem highly unlikely.
    It's not the sum of years that make me stop and think, it's the sense of time passing which becomes thicker as we reach the end of another year and, unwillingly, we make a balance.
    I see my kids growing and making their way into the world, I see other children of the family taller every year, and the weight of the time passed catches me on the curb, halts me and questions in a harsh voice: "where has your time gone? what have you done with it? what do you have to show?"
    ... and I realize I didn't feel time passing, I didn't feel it slipping through my fingers, another year is almost passed and I did not enroll back in school because life kept happening while I was making other plans, and the kids needed to be attended, and the cats needed to be fed, and the grocery, and the cleaning, and the... and... and...
    Another year is coming to an end and I don't know how many I have left, if I will ever go back to school or go into an adventure, or move to another house, or fall in love again. I don't know, just like the rest of us.
    Death can happen, but it's part of Life. Life happens.
    And there is no safe plan against life.