Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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Summer is getting ready to pack her bags and disappear; she’ll probably break records for the hottest ever. Let’s hope that string theory is right, and in some parallel universe we haven’t made the same blunders, and the earth is doing just fine, thank you, and a hot summer day is just a hot summer day.
I’m still not used to writing “2010,” even though the year is two-thirds over. I’m still not used to living on a planet that’s too hot to touch. I’m still not used to qualifying for the senior discount at the health-food store. I’m still not used to Barack Obama being a man, not a god.
I remind myself that campaigning for public office is different from the arduous work of governing — just as falling in love is different from the ups and downs of married life; just as the writer’s flash of inspiration is different from the fifth and sixth and seventh drafts.
I haven’t finished even half the work I’d intended to get done before leaving town tomorrow. I hope that before my plane takes off, the pilot and the maintenance crew check off all the items on their to-do lists. I hope that the baristas in New York have stocked up on coffee beans, and the sanitation workers have picked up all the trash. I hope that God, notwithstanding his considerable responsibilities, hasn’t fallen as far behind as I have, that he isn’t keeping millions of sentient beings waiting for an answer to their prayers while he makes one last revision to the top of Mount Everest and fiddles around a little more with the Bering Strait.
If I care so much about the environment, why did I fly to New York to visit old friends? When I checked into my hotel, the clerk asked if I was in town for business or pleasure. “Pleasure,” I said, and the earth whispered, It’s no pleasure for me.
Ninety-nine percent of all species that have ever lived have gone extinct, including every one of our hominid ancestors.
I’m looking for my body. The last time I saw it was weeks ago at the gym. My body doesn’t call. My body doesn’t write. You’re taking me for granted, my body might have said before it stopped wasting its breath; I can’t be sure because I wasn’t listening. I was surfing the Internet. I was driving to work. What about biking to work? my body might have whispered. But I was reading a stack of manuscripts. I was thinking about the next issue. Actually, my wife, Norma, bought me a bicycle about a year ago. Last month it was stolen from our porch; perhaps the thief took it because I never took it anywhere. (“It wasn’t a year ago,” Norma said after she read this. “It was five years ago.”)
Frank Zappa: “It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.”
I’ve started writing my next fundraising letter to our readers, whose goodwill and generosity I never take for granted. Can I spare a few minutes to give thanks, too, to the god of dreams, who last night let me live through a nuclear war, a horrific reminder that there are still thousands of nuclear weapons in the world — surely of greater concern to humanity than whether I raise enough money for the magazine this year. On the other hand, I don’t want to discount the importance of efforts like The Sun to move the world a little closer to a day when there’s less bloodshed, less hatred, and fewer refugees wandering through a devastated landscape. In my dream we kept shaking our heads. We couldn’t believe it had come to this.
Norma keeps reminding me I can’t predict the future. I suppose that’s true. But one thing is certain, I tell her: we’re all going to die one day — if not today, then tomorrow; if not before our loved ones, then after we’ve buried them. The fix is in. The cards are marked and the deck is stacked. Maybe we’ve been on a winning streak for a while: the body doing as the body should; the loving partner still throwing kisses; all our risky little investments paying off. Maybe we feel blessed by God, or maybe we thank our lucky stars God isn’t paying much attention as the chips pile up before us. What did we do, we think, to deserve such good fortune? Then one day the business fails, our heart fails, we speed up at the intersection just as the light turns red. “Everyone dies,” Norma agrees. “It’s the price we pay for the privilege of having been born.” Yes, it’s good to remember how each of us miraculously began, and to remember that a human incarnation doesn’t come with a guarantee it will go on forever — just a lifetime guarantee.
I dreamt that I was back in New York, where a homeless man who called himself the Buddha tried to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge. The price was right; I didn’t haggle; I told him we had a deal. But in order to ship the bridge back to North Carolina, I reminded him, I’d have to take it apart brick by brick. What if I couldn’t put it back together? “No problem,” he said. “Just leave it here.” This, I realized, was absolutely brilliant. Now thousands of people can still drive over the Brooklyn Bridge every day, and only I, and the Buddha, know whose bridge it really is.