Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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What can I do? I’m in a slump. If anyone is keeping records, let it be noted that I’ve showed up for practice, picked up the same rollerball pen, and held it in the preferred position as I’ve leaned into the clean white page. I’ve worn the regulation uniform — a black T-shirt and worn Levi’s — and focused on the task at hand: to keep my eyes open and my hand moving and not to second-guess myself as I swing and miss, swing and miss.
Note to self: Don’t worry about your readers. Don’t worry about your reputation as a man with big ideas. You don’t feel big today. You don’t feel like an editor or a publisher or a writer with an army of words to command. Small is how you feel. Too small to greet the day. Too small to find your way. Too small to defend yourself before a jury of your peers, who wouldn’t notice you anyway, because you’re too damn small.
I marvel that the magazine I started with fifty dollars in 1974 is now thirty-nine years old, has nearly seventy thousand subscribers, and is entirely reader supported. It continues to defy the odds. It’s the burning bush I can hardly believe, even though I’m staring at it with my own disbelieving eyes.
And I marvel, too, that I’m now sixty-seven years old, which is inconceivable to some of my closest confidants: the adolescent inside me who will always be fourteen; the twenty-eight-year-old former newspaper reporter selling the first issue of his magazine on the street; the bereft thirty-three-year-old father of two bedding down for the night on the office sofa. It’s the fall of 1978. He’s just split up with his second wife. I’m going to show up in one of his dreams tonight, a grizzled character twice his age, who traveled back in time to put a comforting hand on his shoulder. And let’s not forget the young man I was at sixty, who summoned his friends to his birthday party with an invitation that quoted Trotsky: “Old age is the most unexpected of all things that can happen to a man.”
In the dark before dawn, I make black marks on a white page. It’s a way to do my time without forgetting where I am. After all, the cell is beautifully decorated, the food couldn’t be tastier, my wife can spend the night with me whenever she chooses. Then I notice the calendar: the first decade of the twenty-first century is already behind us, which means I’m that much closer to the day it all ends, my appeals exhausted, my friends in high places insisting their hands are tied, except to wave goodbye.
How odd that so many new-age visionaries who can’t tell you when the Civil War was fought possess such a nuanced understanding of the ancient Maya. On December 21, 2012, they say, we’ll reach the end of the thirteenth b’ak’tun cycle of the Maya Long Count calendar, and, as prophesied, experience either a global spiritual awakening or the end of the world. Really now. Nothing against the ancient Maya, but I doubt they were that prescient. They were human, which means they tried to impose their limited understanding of reality on a universe drenched in mystery — even as they struggled with their personal lives, their envy and ambition, and their embarrassing tendency to pretend to be wiser than they actually were. Just like us, with our universities and libraries and think tanks, our optimists and pessimists and befuddled physicists who can’t figure out what’s the matter with matter and whether their old model of reality might be worth anything on eBay.
On this autumn day, however, I’m reminded of a moment when our collective survival really did hang in the balance. It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed all but inevitable. I was a college sophomore in New York City in the fall of 1962. I remember walking between classes with a transistor radio pressed to my ear, anxious to keep up with any breaking news, half-convinced that the missiles would soon be flying and that everyone I cared about would be dead or dying. I recall feeling sorry for myself too: a political-science major about to discover how pitifully inept humans were at governing themselves. No more bylines in the school newspaper. No more margin notes in Plato’s Republic. And, barring the unlikely possibility that some previously unavailable young woman would want me to comfort her during the waning hours of our tragically foreshortened lives, no chance to lose my virginity before being vaporized by a fifty-megaton hydrogen bomb. Damn those Russians! And, as an agnostic Jew, I didn’t imagine I’d get to continue my studies on some rolling campus in the afterlife. I mean, I wasn’t even a straight-A student, just a neurotic, slightly overweight boy whose heart was set on a career as a newspaper reporter in the greatest soon-to-be-obliterated city in the world.
Scientists now tell us there are super-massive black holes at the center of every galaxy, ripping apart stars that get too close — and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it.
I had a hard time sleeping last night because of the thunderstorm raging above me and my lovely wife snoring beside me. O noisy world! Now the birds are singing, and the coffee maker is rumbling, and the traffic is already building inside my head: no delays yet, no accidents, though it’s still early. If I hold my watch to my ear, I can hear it ticking: one tick per second, 86,400 ticks per day. That’s quite a responsibility for one small watch — to always be ready with the right answer. Just the time, please, none of that crap about the eternal now.
The rain has started again: busy little drops jabbering away in a language only clouds understand.
I was happy to see the return of Sy Safransky’s Notebook after a several-month hiatus. I worried that its detractors might have discouraged him from writing for good.
My interest in Safransky’s writing isn’t so much for the specific content as for the opportunity to get a personal glimpse into the mind of the man who created the publication I love and value dearly. The January 2013 Notebook was superlative. The image of the regulation writer’s uniform made me chuckle, the information on the magazine’s and the editor’s histories fed my curiosity, and the metaphor of the ticking watch stunned me with its brilliance.
It was worth waiting for.