Same River Twice (with apologies to Mr. Offutt)

Heraclitus was right. Nothing remains still. If we want change, we will not be disappointed because it will come. It’s coming now.

I quit my job after my father died. And a funny thing happened to time. It slowed down and shifted and opened up in the middle. It didn’t fit into a grid the way it had for so long, starting with kindergarten. I no longer distinguished weekdays from weekends. Straight time from overtime. Street clothes from work clothes. None of these distinctions held any meaning. A day was no longer broken up into sections. Sunrise and sunset were the only divisions. It seemed like a limitless thing. Like anything could happen between sunrise and sunset. I had every choice in the world. And what did I do? I ran to the nearest dispenser of idiocy so that I could limit my limitless day.

 

Every morning after I dropped my son off at West Branch High School, I picked up a coffee and Dunkin Donuts and came back home to watch the Dan Patrick Show. This was the best part of my day because I hadn’t done anything yet which meant I still had the potential to…do something. And I intended to do something just as soon as I finished my cup of coffee.

 

So the show begins. Dan gives his overall take on what’s happening in sports. Then his four stooges, Fritz, Paulie, Seaton and McLovin’, chip in with whatever insights or stupid puns they might have cooked up. Then there might be a guest. Then, if it’s a Monday, everyone will have to report on what they think was “the best and worst” of the weekend. Then they might take phone calls. In the end, everyone needs to say what they learned during the show. And then it’s ten o’clock. And I know I’m blowing the whole “I’m going to be a writer” thing. And it won’t be long before I’m back in the trade. Which is much easier in some ways because you don’t need to make any decisions about what you want to do or need to do or any of the rest of it. You just do. And you do. And do. And do. Until you can’t do anymore. And then, congratulations, someone might put a bow on your casket.

 

If you spend a lot of your life engaging in a particular activity, you need to convince yourself of the importance of that activity. Because if you can’t convince yourself, you’ll need to admit you’ve wasted a lot of time. I don’t want to believe this, so I have by necessity convinced myself that Dan Patrick and therefore sports and therefore the Super Bowl is very important.

 

Kickoff is at 5:30. And it’s 3:30 at the moment. I’m lying on the floor doing the exercises my physical therapist told me to do. I have a problem with a certain muscle group responsible for allowing me to do things like walk and run and bend down and stand up again. I messed it up about ten years ago when I was working on a large exhaust fan at a Chinese restaurant in Iowa City. It was sleeting that day, and fan was mounted on a flat rubber roof. The restaurant owner was standing there in the sleet, arms crossed, watching me work. “You need help?” he asked, watching me struggle to pick it up. I refused help. “You sure? I help you.” “No,” I said. I refused his help. And now I’m lying on my side kicking my left leg in the air again and again. But what I’m really doing is biding my time. Things will change.

 

Five minutes ago, I let the dog outside. Now he’s sitting on the back porch in the deep snow, looking forlorn in the way only Labs can do, with his ears forced downward and his head hanging low like he’s guilty of a heinous crime. He was looking at me the same way before I let him out. It’s his way of asking for something. But it’s more than asking. He’s laying a guilt trip on me. How could I ignore him this way? Can’t I see how wretched and miserable he is? What kind of a monster wouldn’t let his dog in the house? Can’t I see the deep snow? But I resist feeling guilty. He’s a Labrador Retriever for Christ sake. He can take 20 degrees. Besides, I just let him out. It’s all a big guilt trip and I turn the other way so I don’t have to look at him so I can lift right leg in the air just like the physical therapist told me and now I’m looking at my son, Michael, who wants me to take him for a ride in the car. I told him we had to wait till his mother got home.

 

After watching my father deteriorate and die, I became more aware of what I didn’t want. I didn’t want to waste my life. I could feel the momentum that the routine of my life was imposing upon me. It would have been easier to keep my job and continue in the same direction, but I could make a good guess as to how the game would end. All the game pieces on the final space. And the way we played the game of life would determine whether we could go to the Millionaire Estates or the Countryside Acres or under a bridge somewhere.

 

I was talking to my friend Paul, an otolaryngologist. He was thinking of quitting his job. And I asked him what it was he wanted.

“What do I want?” he said. “What do you mean? Like, in life?”

“Yes. In life.”

Paul shook his head. We were both staring at the fire he had laid in the hearth.

“I don’t fucking know,” he said, laughing ruefully. We stared at the fire some more and then he said, “I don’t know what I want. All I know is what I don’t want.”

 

If I quit my job, I knew I’d probably make less money. But that, I thought, didn’t matter. Because there was death. It was real. It happened. And so, I asked myself, since I was still alive, what it was I wanted to accomplish in my life and I decided that I wanted to write a book. That’s what I wanted to do. And so, if I was going to write a book, I knew I’d need to sacrifice some things. I made a mental list of things I didn’t care about anymore. A few things on the list I had ceased caring about years before like vacations to tropical places or big houses or new cars. Maybe I shouldn’t have kept going with the list beyond those few things, but I couldn’t control it. The list went on. I didn’t care whether anyone liked what I wrote. I didn’t care whether anyone bought it. What I cared about was whether it was the best I could make it. Acclaim and shame could go fuck themselves. Popularity and unpopularity. Readers or no readers. I had no control over these things. And of course there was death. So why worry?

 

I felt rather stoical and wise with my little list of things that I didn’t care about and with my new goal of writing a book. But thinking the thought and doing the deed are two different things. And my body, a very cyclical thing in itself, quickly grew hungry for the old routine. And there was a void, I noticed, at my very center.

 

Might I have been trying to impress my father by living my life a certain way? And then, when I lost my father had I also lost my purpose? And if that was the case, now what?

 

Alexander Maksik read a section of his critically acclaimed novel, You Deserve Nothing, a few years ago at Prairie Lights. He had risked his promising career in academia to write the book and I asked him, during the Q&A, why he wrote. The pair of women behind me gasped audibly. One of them hissed, “Why do you write?! Why do you breathe!” I wanted to turn around and ask the woman if she believed that writing was an involuntary act, but that was a rhetorical question and I didn’t want to grandstand. I wanted to know the answer. I wanted to know why I wrote.

Xander sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said.

 

Mike has been waiting all day to go somewhere. He doesn’t care where we go. He just wants to go somewhere. “It’s snowing outside, Michael,” I say. “See the snow? It’s snowing. We can’t go anywhere.” But he doesn’t understand. I have a car, don’t I? Why can’t we go the way we always do?

“Put your shoes on please,” he says. “Shoes on please. Shoes on please.”

Deb went to yoga an hour ago. She was able to go somewhere. Why can’t we go somewhere?

“Okay, Mike,” I say. “When mom gets home, we’ll go. Okay? When mom gets home, we’ll go somewhere.”

This seems to make him happy for a while. And he begins to wait for his mother to get home.

 

It was ten years ago when the Patriots beat the Eagles to win Super Bowl XXXIX. Donovan McNabb was leading the final drive. He was moving in slow motion. It seemed to take forever. It was a long time to wait. Ten years seems like a long time to wait. Soon, Super Bowl XLIX will start. That wait will be over. And for the next few hours, I will be very certain of what it is I want. Which will be an excruciating relief.

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