Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I’m filling in today for Sy Safransky, who said he needed a break — “a vacation from being Sy,” is how he put it, with his characteristic flair for melodrama. Of course, he might be less exhausted if he curbed some of the histrionics; if he just walked a straight line from one end of his life to the other without stopping every few minutes to get another pebble out of his shoe.
Because I often write about my desire to lead a more disciplined life, some readers imagine I actually live that way: sitting cross-legged every morning and following my breath over the river and through the woods; sliding behind the wheel of “Sy Safransky’s Notebook” and clocking 120 miles per hour on the specially built track inside my head; lacing up my running shoes according to secret esoteric principles revealed only to those who commence their morning run at the same time every day, regardless of weather, injury, or a broken heart. Well, sometimes I do live that way. And sometimes I neglect my practices for a day, a week, a month — do I hear two months?
New goals: Rein in my eating. Rein in my thinking. Shut down the radio station in my head that promises fair and balanced reporting but instead broadcasts half-truths about the nature of existence and endless propaganda about what a terrible person I am. Who wants to listen to that all day? So, no more nonsense about the First Amendment. When the enemy is in your head, extreme measures may be necessary. And for a fight like this, it’s better to be lean and mean.
I dreamt that I was eating sunshine — as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted. No worry about calories. No unsightly roll of light around my middle.
I’ve been coming into the office before everyone else so I can sit behind my battle-scarred schoolteacher’s desk and get some work done without being anybody’s boss. I love putting out a magazine every month, and seeing to it that every word counts, and that nothing distracts a reader or confuses a reader or makes a reader lose heart. What I do not love, what I have never loved, is being anyone’s boss. Perhaps that’s because I’m more comfortable questioning authority than being an authority figure. Nonetheless, I prefer being the boss to having a boss, so I have no right to gripe.
If, instead of starting The Sun in 1974, I’d gone to work for the Federal Bureau of Imagination, I’d probably be retired by now, living off a fat pension on a private island in another dimension. But what a mistake that would have been! Instead I’ll soon be celebrating The Sun’s fortieth anniversary. How grateful I am for the magazine’s good fortune. But I felt grateful, too, when The Sun couldn’t pay its bills and I lived in the back of the office because I couldn’t afford a place of my own. I felt grateful when The Sun had a hundred subscribers, and I felt grateful when it had a thousand subscribers, and I feel grateful now, when there are more than seventy thousand subscribers showing up each month for a meal I hope is nourishing. J.D. Salinger once wrote about a girl “who was drinking her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God. I mean, all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean.” That’s the kind of nourishment I want The Sun to provide.
Am I working too hard? Probably. Am I not getting enough sleep? Of course. Am I discouraged that no matter how hard I work and how little I sleep, I’m never caught up? What else is new? I’m a twenty-first-century man indentured to too many deadlines; responsible for too many decisions; drinking too much coffee; spending too much time worrying about my magazine because I’m The Sun’s worrier-in-chief. How unfair that the twenty-four-hour day was adopted by voice vote, in the middle of the night, by the architects of space and time, even though “night,” strictly speaking, hadn’t been invented yet. Still, it’s unseemly for a sixty-eight-year-old man to piss away what little time he has left by demanding more of it.
When I told my stepson, Jaime, that I’ll probably keep publishing The Sun until I stop breathing, he reminded me that there might be other reasons I’d need to quit: dementia, for example, or losing my eyesight, or becoming too physically frail to work. I hadn’t considered this before. I’ve always assumed that I’ll just keep laboring mightily, in reasonably good health, until I die suddenly of a massive heart attack, or a fatal aneurism, or a violent attack by Middle Eastern terrorists or by a Midwestern writer whose poems I’ve rejected for the eighteenth time. It’s difficult to contemplate a day when The Sun arrives in my mailbox and I’m unable to read it or remember why it’s being sent to me. Maybe I call the subscription department to tell them to take my name off their list. But when I can’t remember my name, the woman on the phone grows impatient, which makes me angry, which makes her more impatient. Perhaps she hangs up. Or I hang up first. The magazine keeps coming.
I had a hard time falling asleep last night. But I’m not going to complain this morning about the neighbor’s dog barking or about my waking up with a headache. I’m not going to complain that a mile-and-a-half-wide tornado just swept through an Oklahoma town that’s been beaten to a pulp by too many tornadoes to count. I’m not going to complain that a friend has been diagnosed with cancer. I’m not going to complain that there’s only a small chance he’ll survive. I’m not going to complain about the word small, because there are small white blossoms on the plum tree this morning, and because a small chance is better than no chance, and because my faith in the power of prayer is a flickering candle, easily snuffed out. And I’m not going to complain this morning that I didn’t get to edit God’s Master Plan, that a few tweaks here and there might have spared innumerable beings indescribable suffering. I’m just saying, Lord. I’m not complaining.
I am troubled by Sy Safransky’s comment in his November 2013 Notebook: “I’ve always assumed that I’ll just keep laboring mightily, in reasonably good health, until I die suddenly of a massive heart attack, or a fatal aneurism, or a violent attack by Middle Eastern terrorists or by a Midwestern writer whose poems I’ve rejected for the eighteenth time.”
Even though it is a highly improbable hypothetical, to specify that the terrorists are Middle Eastern is inappropriate and, frankly, racist. Of all the terrorist acts that have occurred in the U.S. over the last several decades, very few have involved terrorists from that part of the world. It seems to me that Safransky has fallen victim to the incessant propaganda that the U.S. is in danger from an attack by people from the Middle East. I’m surprised that he would perpetuate this campaign in The Sun.
In the November 2013 issue of The Sun, Sy Safransky writes in his Notebook that, as editor, he is “seeing to it that every word counts, and that nothing distracts a reader or confuses a reader or makes a reader lose heart.” I love The Sun and always read it from cover to cover, but I often lose heart because of something I’ve read, and I am occasionally confused, too. For example, the short story “How It Would Come,” by Geoffrey Becker [November 2013], certainly caused me to lose heart, as did “Let Nothing You Dismay,” by Joan Murray. And the poem “Empire,” by Tony Hoagland [November 2013], was confusing to me, especially the lines “the ink is made from the eyelids of baby mice. / The paper is manufactured by someone / on trial for drinking blood.” Confusing and beautiful.
I guess I don’t read The Sun expecting not to lose heart or be confused. The ability of the writers to portray the human predicament is enough.