With fists, with words, with kindness
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One man’s attempt to understand himself, his wife, his country, and the human predicament — all before breakfast.
Table of ContentsX
Let The Minutes Show
My End Of The Deal
So Many Buddhas
Ties Of Italian Silk
The Unfamiliar Bed
The Weight Of My Habits
A Different Kind Of Greed
The Towers Are Gone
Even The Rich
Give Me Back The War On Drugs
The Hand That Writes It
Her Cheek Is Still Burning
Enemy Of The State
Another Man’s Joke
They Wanted The Night To Be Over
The Day’s First Mistake
Charging The Matador’s Cape
Dark Purple Plums
Only The Living Sleep
Five Hundred Years
She Drove All Night, She Says
I Argued With A Box Of Crackers
Realm Of The Fluttering Leaves
Dirty Little Secret
Rubble In The Square
On The Dance Floor
History Sits At The Bar
Three Days In The Wilderness
Zeus Showing Off
Here In The Waking World
Rumi Keeps Talking
Bright Yellow Ball
In The Eyes Of Gurus
Stale Wonder Bread
I Pick Up The Dictionary
The Best Way To Worship Her
Love With Its Fifty Exceptions
A Man Who Forgot To Do Yoga
My Kind Of Judaism
He Who Killed The Bear
The Crowded Tables Of Café Du Monde
Underneath These Clothes
Objects In The Rearview Mirror
The Shape Of The Barrel
Congregation Of One
Feast Of Feasts
I Didn’t Need To Shout
She Was So Small
Reporting For Duty
A Thousand Footnotes
The Story Of Babar
Getting The Words Right
My Inner Republican
His Famous Melancholia
After The Next Deadline
Ties! In 2009!
The Meaning Of Drowning
The Lie I Tell Myself
Her Secret Police
Teacher Of The Year
Many Alarm Clocks
Back To The Garden
Tomorrow Never Comes
Too Hot To Touch
The Old Jail Keeper
Six Different Kinds Of Silence
They Came For Their Lessons
All The News Will Be Recycled
New And Improved Commandments
My Secret Notebook
Third Planet From The Sun
Tidy Little Squares
Close Enough To Touch
Read an ExcerptX
I write in my notebook early in the morning, almost always before the sun comes up. (To the sun it doesn’t matter, but it matters to me.) Some of the entries are long and carefully considered; some are just two or three run-on sentences: fragments of essays I’ll never write, snatches of conversation, postcards from the dream realm.
Usually I write for at least an hour; on some mornings maybe a half-hour. Writing something every day is important to me — no matter how little sleep I’ve gotten or what mood I’m in. When I’m faithful to this practice, my skin has a rosy glow, the car starts in the morning, my cats come when I call. But I’m not always faithful. Sometimes I oversleep, or I wake up worried about an impending deadline and head straight to the office. Even then, I try to remember what the physician-poet William Carlos Williams said. He was also a busy man, known to compose poems between seeing patients. He insisted that “five minutes, ten minutes, can always be found.”
I use a rollerball pen. I write on narrow-ruled paper. The paper is supposed to discourage big, loopy handwriting and keep my ego in check — a failed experiment, though I persevere.
For more than half my life I’ve lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. So, weather permitting and clichés about the South notwithstanding, my favorite place to write is in a wicker chair on the porch. Does it matter that I grew up in a kosher household in Brooklyn, New York — one set of dishes for meat and one for dairy; nonstop complaining in both English and Yiddish — and will never be mistaken for a Southerner, let alone a Southern writer? What matters is showing up in the morning. The Muse couldn’t care less where I’m from.
Nonetheless, it’s here in this Southern college town that I borrowed fifty dollars and started a magazine more than forty years ago. And it’s here that The Sun continues to be published every month: an ad-free, independent journal to which I still devote most of my waking hours.
I used to write essays every month for The Sun. After all, one advantage of starting your own magazine is that, for better or worse, it gives you a place to publish your own writing. But here’s the catch: if your magazine grows beyond your wildest dreams, you’re likely to become a hardworking editor and publisher who can barely find time to write. (It doesn’t help that I’m the slowest writer in the world; others may make this claim, but, trust me, I’m slower.) These days, instead of essays, I publish pages from my notebook.
Nine-tenths of what I write in the morning never gets into print because there’s a thin line between being self-revealing and self-indulgent and, at least in broad daylight, I try not to cross it. But every month or so I type up the sentences that seem to have some merit. I edit. I edit some more. The words left standing are marched single file into a section of the magazine called Sy Safransky’s Notebook. That’s where all the journal entries in Many Alarm Clocks originally appeared.
Many Alarm Clocks isn’t a book in which you’ll find any practical advice about how to start a magazine or how to run a magazine or how to circle the wagons in defense of the serial comma. Nor is this book likely to help writers who regularly submit work to The Sun and are understandably dejected over how many times they’ve been rejected, and who would like to understand why I’m so hard to please.
My heart goes out to them, but I don’t understand it either.
There’s a lot I don’t understand, as the following pages should make abundantly clear. In them I criticize my own writing and ruminate about love and loss, and faith and doubt, and hypocritical Republicans and feckless Democrats, and the wayward republic to which, hand over heart, I pledged allegiance as a schoolboy. I write about being a Jew who keeps a picture of a Hindu guru on his wall and sometimes prays to Jesus; and about being a husband and a father and, most recently, a grandfather; and about eating too much and about not meditating enough and about getting older every day no matter how many vitamins I take. Sometimes I talk to the dead. Sometimes I argue with God.
Though drawn from the magazine, Many Alarm Clocks isn’t a random collection of Notebook pages. From more than two thousand published entries I selected those that best fit a handful of recurring themes, trying to avoid the temptation to make myself look wiser than I am, less afraid of dying, less afraid of living. Then I braided them together along a more-or-less chronological arc that begins in 2000 and spans nearly fifteen years. This last part turned out to be more challenging than I’d anticipated. If only I’d paid more attention when my grandmother, seemingly effortlessly, braided together several strands of dough into one magnificent loaf of challah. What would she have thought, I wonder, of that confused-looking man in rumpled clothes, his hair disheveled, pacing back and forth week after week in front of a wall covered with bulletin boards, compulsively arranging and rearranging more than six hundred three-by-five index cards, each with an individual journal entry on it?
Since the themes in Many Alarm Clocks repeat themselves, I sometimes repeat myself. For example, I often write about my wife, Norma, because, after having been married to her for more than thirty years, I’m still in love, and still regularly reminded how difficult it is to love another person the way she deserves to be loved. So there’s probably too much arguing with Norma, and too much lovemaking with Norma, and too many references to the moonlight on Norma’s long, dark hair. (As the poet Jack Gilbert wrote, “People complain about too many moons in my poetry. / Even my friends ask why I keep putting in the moon. / And I wish I had an answer.”)
One of The Sun’s editors suggested that there’s “too much about loneliness.” I agree. What business do I have being so lonely? I’m a happily married man. I’d like an answer!
I also use the word God too much. (One hundred sixty-one times, God forgive me.) “There’s a lot of coffee in this manuscript,” another staff member said. “You could open up an espresso stand.” There are two references to how many words the Inuit have for snow, two quotes by Eckhart Tolle, two quotes by Woody Allen, singing birds on page 62 and page 64, and three references to making love not war.
Though I tried to keep topical entries to a minimum, more than a few chapters are devoted to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the misguided and shameful “war on terror” that followed. Because some Sun readers deplore my politics, and others wish I’d stick with the politics and stop obsessing about my so-called self, it’s possible that some of you who plunked down good money for this book are going to be displeased. That’s why every sentence comes with a money-back guarantee.
A note about how to read this book: any way you want, of course. This is still mostly a free country, unless the government has decided you’re an enemy of freedom. You have the right to read back to front. You have the right to jump around, if you like jumping. But to avoid confusion I suggest you start at the beginning. Some of these entries were written by a middle-aged man who’d just gained a few pounds; some by a man in his sixties who’d just lost a few pounds. His president was George Walker Bush; his president was Barack Hussein Obama. His country was fighting one war; no, two wars; no, a never-ending war.
The title Many Alarm Clocks is purloined from the enigmatic spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff, who maintained that most of us live in a trance state, a kind of waking sleep, but that it’s possible, through a rigorous process of self-transformation, to wake up and discover our true nature. I don’t presume to grasp the breadth and depth of Gurdjieff’s teaching, and the jury still seems to be out on whether he was a great mystic or a great trickster, or both. But habitual early risers like me are sometimes tempted to claim the moral high ground and forget that getting out of bed is the easy part. So I value his reminder that “a man may be awakened by an alarm clock. But the trouble is that a man gets accustomed to the alarm clock far too quickly and ceases to hear it. Many alarm clocks are necessary and always new ones.”
Just to be clear: I’m not a follower of Gurdjieff. Many Alarm Clocks isn’t a guidebook to spiritual awakening. And though I read books by spiritual teachers, and sometimes interview spiritual teachers, and often describe my work with The Sun as “my spiritual path disguised as a desk job,” I’m asleep much of the time, too. Every day I’m humbled by how challenging it is, during our brief stay on this mysterious planet, to wake up and stay awake.
Writers need editors. This is true, maybe especially true, when the writer himself is an editor. But just as doctors are notoriously bad patients, and a lawyer can be counted upon to be another lawyer’s most difficult client, editing an editor can be a formidable task. So I’m grateful to my colleagues who rose to the challenge. Some proposed modest changes; others reached for a cleaver and asked for a little elbow room. If I’d accepted all their suggestions, Many Alarm Clocks might have been a better book. Still, more often than not, I swallowed the medicine, paid the fine, ruefully acknowledging that some heavily made-up sentence I’d once found so alluring wasn’t doing me, or the book, any good.
I’m especially indebted to Luc Saunders, The Sun’s assistant editor, for his generous and insightful critique. I was, I admit, momentarily taken aback when Luc handed me his marked-up copy of the manuscript festooned with enough yellow, blue, and peach-colored Post-it notes to wallpaper a house. But after I’d broken the color code and studied his extensive page-by-page comments, I couldn’t have been more grateful.
I’m also obliged to The Sun’s senior editor, Andrew Snee, for having no compunction about wading into a dangerously crowded paragraph, grabbing a rowdy sentence by the collar, and throwing it off the roof. Andrew’s rigorous editing has improved the work of many writers; I’m fortunate to count myself among them.
Seth Mirsky meticulously proofread this book, as he does every issue of The Sun, from his home in Maine. I thought of Seth when I read recently that bald eagles, who can spot a rabbit from a mile away, are making a comeback in his state. And it occurred to me that, notwithstanding an eagle’s keen vision and razor-sharp talons, a rabbit in Maine is a hell of a lot safer than some obscure grammatical error trying to hop across Seth’s desk.
When Carol Ann Fitzgerald, The Sun’s managing editor, joined the staff in 2013, I told her that, except for a few finishing touches, Many Alarm Clocks was ready to be sent to the printer. Then she discovered I’d been applying “finishing touches” to the book for more than two years. Were it not for her infectious enthusiasm and unflagging determination to move the project toward completion, the manuscript would still be sitting in my office, sighing dramatically every time I approached it to straighten a curl or trim a little more off the top.
I’m grateful to the Estate of Marc Chagall for permission to use his painting, The Clock and the Blue Wing, on the cover. Robert Graham, The Sun’s art director, is responsible for the book’s understated and elegant design. For additional help, I’m indebted to editorial assistant Derek Askey as well as former staff members Erica Berkeley, Tim McKee, Lauren Holder Raab, and Angela Winter. Staff members Krista Bremer, Colleen Donfield, Rachel J. Elliott (who took the author photograph), Becky Gee, Holly McKinney, Molly Herboth, and David Mahaffey all contributed in their own way. And special thanks to my friends Heather Sellers and Cary Tennis for their valuable advice.
To my father, my first editor, my toughest editor: my undying gratitude. And I bow to the cats who prowl the halls of this book. Nimbus and Cirrus are, sadly, gone, but Franny and Zooey are alive and well, and there’s no mistaking their devotion to my writing as they lie sprawled across my desk, guarding my words, even from me.
Thanks above all to my wife, Norma, for the countless hours she put into this book. Norma works full time. She tends to her garden. She knocks on doors to get out the vote. There’s yoga class, ballet class — she’s a class act, my Norma. But she’s never too busy to help me with my work. On an afternoon when she could be planting flowers up and down the Eastern Seaboard, she’ll sit beside me, combing through pages she’s read a dozen times before. And when she tells me to cut the last sentence of something — the last sentence! — she’s always right.
Finally I want to thank you, the reader. We both know you could be holding some other book right now, written by someone wiser than I am — or, at least, more upbeat. Maybe you’ve made a list of all the books you want to read before you die, and you’ve fallen way behind, and this one isn’t even on the list. But here you are, in a life too busy by half, about to take a chance on this book. Full disclosure: Someone who read an early draft suggested I call it What Is the Sound of One Man Complaining? She claims she was joking. Still, I thought you should know.
i worship alone in the early morning, my coffee as black as the sky outside. There’s no rabbi here, no priest. No one is feeding me chicken soup for my soul. Here in the darkness, I won’t be confused with a busy editor whose calls are screened, who gives generously to all the right causes, who every month assembles the wisdom of the ages on the last page of his magazine. Here, I remember that so many fools like me have come and gone. We eased out of bed before our wives were up, sat on the floor, talked to God. How skillfully we bargained. How beautiful our words.
let the minutes show that I’m here, that I braved a none-too-happy childhood; legal drugs, illegal drugs; organized religion, disorganized religion; toothaches, stomachaches, the occasional headache, plenty of heartache; the death of my father, the death of my mother, the death of my infant son; three marriages, two divorces, and a long and utterly impractical love affair with myself.
my first cup of coffee must be strong because I want to be strong. This may be demanding too much of coffee.
how did a nice jewish boy like me end up with such a stern Protestant work ethic? I take vitamins and go to the gym regularly. I defend the Constitution and signal before I turn. I’m in bed by ten most nights and up before five to exercise my right to be an overachieving American. Is this because I’m devoted to The Sun, or is it because I’m devoted to my own self-esteem? So who have I been trying to save with my Herculean labors: the world or myself?
putting out the sun each month continues to be hard work. The long hours and the tough decisions sometimes wear me down. I’m not complaining, just observing — the way I observed how difficult it was to sit still at the meditation retreat last weekend. I was trying to follow my breath, but the pain in my legs was profoundly distracting, as were my wandering thoughts. I’ll never learn to meditate perfectly. But I breathed in, I breathed out. I’ll never learn to be a perfect editor. But I put out one issue, then another.
what a busy day! I remind myself to savor it anyway. This is my life, I think, not a dress rehearsal for some other life. If, while emptying the trash, I notice how blue the sky is, then there’s that much blue sky in my day: no more, no less.
sure i work hard. So do many other people. I try to remember something my friend Robert once said: “All those doctors who complain that they worked so hard in medical school — compared to whom? Someone who digs ditches all day? Someone who works back-to-back shifts at McDonald’s?”
i tell a buddhist friend that, no matter how hard I work, I never get to all the items on my to-do list. He nods sympathetically. Then, with a little smile, he asks, “Why not keep a not-to-do list?”
putting out a monthly magazine is my end of the deal: the covenant I make with God, or with my readers, and perhaps there’s no difference. Maybe dreamers like me need a deadline the way the soul needs a body. Maybe we need to get roughed up regularly the way the immortal soul, in order to experience a human incarnation, needs to take birth in all-too-mortal flesh. The soul may dwell in eternity, but time has the last word here.
i wasn’t a regular follower of the Peanuts comic strip, yet I’m moved by the news of Charles Schulz’s death. Here was a man in love with his work and the characters he’d created. In a career that lasted nearly fifty years, he never missed a daily deadline. He even had a clause in his contract dictating that the strip had to end with his death; no one could continue it. A few months ago, after having been diagnosed with cancer, Schulz announced he was going to retire. Last night, on the eve of the publication of his final strip, he died. His work and his life ended on the same day.
in the shower, the shampoo bottle falls and hits my toe. It hurts, but I don’t bend down to rub it. I’m in a hurry. Later, at my desk, I’m writing out checks for Oxfam, Amnesty International, Seva. These modest donations are the least I can do. But I’m still in a hurry, annoyed at the time it takes to deal with the world’s pain, too.
walking past the united nations headquarters in New York City, I’m reminded that the un is as old as I am. Since 1945, we’ve both been struggling with human nature. Yet how quickly I shut my heart to a disagreeable neighbor. How quickly I shut the door on myself! If I make a habit of judging myself harshly for every real or imagined failing, then how can I possibly extend generosity to others? My politics must be rooted in compassion for myself if I want to contribute to a more compassionate world.
almost completely paralyzed by polio, Mark O’Brien spent most of his life in an iron lung. He wrote poems and essays and articles by tapping on a computer keyboard with a mouth stick. He was both an inspiration to me and a reproach, a fearsome reminder of how harsh life can be. I finally met him in person last June. (A month later I learned that Mark had died — alone, in the middle of the night, in his iron lung.) During our visit we talked about writing. We talked about dying. We talked about faith and doubt. I fed him a sandwich. I held a straw to his lips for him to sip some juice. Before I left, I wanted to hug him, but, of course, that was impossible. So I asked if I could touch his head. He said he’d like that. I told him I was glad we got to meet in this lifetime. He told me he was, too.
the laws of suffering haven’t changed, but every morning I stand before God and make my case. Yes, that God, the one with whom we’re all on a first-name basis, whether we believe in Him or not.
i’ve taken myself hostage, Lord. Here are my demands: No more people I know being told they have cancer. No more guardian angels asleep at the switch. No more punishments handed down for crimes we committed when we worshiped the wrong gods; or when we thought that being in love would save us; or when we imagined, as smoke filled the crowded theater, that knowing where the exits were would save us.
we left the twentieth century behind. What choice did we have? The future beckoned with a new millennium, a fresh start. Yes, the century that gave birth to us was still breathing, but just barely. What were we going to do with a century that could no longer feed herself, or remember the difference between the First World War and the Second World War, or tell the Armenian orphans from the Vietnamese orphans from the Rwandan orphans? All the names of all her children, forgotten.
this is the first day of the rest of their lives for the 360,000 human beings who will be born today. They’ve come a long way for their precious incarnations. For them we want to put our best foot forward; they deserve the best, don’t they? We’re the caretakers — that is, when we’re not napping or watching television or going to war. Three hundred and sixty thousand beings will cry today, the first day of the rest of their crying. So many infants in so many mangers. So many Buddhas opening and closing their little hands.