"I live in a constant endeavour to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles, --but much more so, when he laughs, that it adds something to this Fragment of Life." -- Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
"Motion and time are illusions." -- ParmenidesLook, I don't like to talk about myself, as I find the subject boring. When I write fiction, I set out to make characters unlike me. I figure that my biography is useful as a set of examples and illustrations, but, if the movie were made, I'd be a supporting character in it.
What's more, I'm fine with this dispensation. With notice comes attention, and with power comes responsibility, and there is something blissful in thinking that, at the end of one's walk, she or he might look back and see no footprints. Why, after all, would anyone want to mess with other people?
Anyway, believe me or not, but it's true. I have been blessed with a spectacular lack of charisma, so I'm no danger of being a guru or tycoon. My outside doesn't resemble my inside, so people don't spot me in crowds, and those who see the outsized "me" of the Internet can't believe the pathetic figure of the actual. (I got a coupon for "actual life," but I should have read it more closely.)
Because I was born clubfooted, cross-eyed, and with my pulmonary valve pinched nearly closed, I had an unspoken but expected reduced life span. The surgery in 1969 was rough, leaving me in a three week coma that lifted on a Sunday as the churches of South Georgia prayed for me, and I kept having this awareness of the silent clock. In 1986, I had a sudden change. Doctors don't like sudden changes. They wanted to rule out some things. They did. However, I was left with six months of believing that I had had my reservation called in, that the time was up.
If it can do any good for any one, I'll share how that happened and what it taught me.
"The time present is seldom able to fill desire or imagination with immediate enjoyment, and we are forced to supply its deficiencies by recollection or anticipation." -- Samuel Johnson, The Rambler #203St. Augustine famously said that he knew exactly what time was, if no one asked him, but, the moment he was asked, he had no idea. Part of the reason for this is that we are always inside time and have no recourse to anything outside of time by which we may look at it. We have similar trouble defining "life." We have a hard time knowing what "we all believe," because we believe it rather than consider it -- but it will be pretty obvious once we no longer believe it or agree.
When I was young and twenty-four, I worked at a life insurance company. This gave me many insights into Franz Kafka's fiction. I worked in the underwriting division, but I was little more than a typist with a college degree. One of my bosses was a watery eyed, old time Southern gentleman who would be played by Jack Lemmon. He took a liking to me as a potential continuation of good bloodlines. Another boss was a young southern man who was very unhappy with the rest of the management team. He could be played by Edward Norton, perhaps.
That year, I had a sudden change in my cardiology report. I Grinchified. My heart grew three sizes. The cardiologists wanted in-patient catheterization of the heart to check pressures. The young boss consulted the underwriting manuals and came out to tell me what "I had": cardiac pulmonary hypertension. There it was in the book: sudden cardiac enlargement, decreased exercise capacity, changes in rhythm from atrial to ventricular tachycardia. Prognosis: Poor. Patients usually die within three to five years without a heart transplant.
He was delighted that it ruined my mood.
I had tried to write a poem cycle without any narrative voice. I was writing lyrics without narrative voice. The reason? I hated the narrative voice because it imposed time on action and gave an illusion of reproducible linearity. Now that's extremely twee, but it's where I was. One opening line that I loved has kept turning up in my mind, like a magnet in my pocket: "The discretion of time never bothered him."
That's all I remember of that lost pile of paper. However, a couple of years later, I would read At Swim-Two-Birds for the first time and find my favorite novel (tied). In it, a cow is called to testify against its author about its treatment in a western in which she was appearing. She testified that she was not milked regularly, and that the room she was kept in was "Infested by clocks." My own room at that time, and now, and ever, could be described the same way. Some have lice: I have clocks.
Whereas most people never hear or feel their hearts beating, I had grown up tuned into the sound and feel of mine. The metaphor of the clock was inescapable. (Worse, I now have a mechanical heart valve that clicks audibly (to me).)
Time bothered me immensely, and especially its discreteness. I had read Henri Bergson between high school and college, and I kept wishing he were better. Even when I later became a real anti-Rationalist, I couldn't accept Bergson in distinction to the classical concepts of being and existing.
When I caught the malignant idea that I was going to die soon, I jumped into all the classic works of doom. I read "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Tolstoy. I read Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death by Kierkegaard. They had messages, and the Kierkegaard was completely the wrong thing to read, but these were the pre-Amazon years. Combined, they spoke of the fleetingness of life in general and the uselessness of spending life on anything but life. Any time spent preparing for happiness was time in despair. There is no future in this world, so we must be who we wish to be now.
They affirmed that the moments of joy are pieces of living, whereas all the worry and fear and concern are nothingness. They said what my eighteenth-century authors had said: you must wander to go in a straight line.
So? That's it? Be happy?
I was disappointed. I knew all that. I was not a business major saving up for a BMW.
I was furious that I would not have a wife, not have age, not have a career, not have any of the things promised by expectation. I was a virgin then, and I thought that would be forever. I felt as if all of the usual things, and we do them a hundred times a day, all the "Well, this summer, I'll. . ." and "Next Christmas, we'll. . ." had been chopped off. That is where the fear and bitterness came in. Then I felt as if I would be of no use to anyone, that I would end without having helped anyone or anything in any way. No book helped with that.
"Live each day" is nice, but it doesn't satisfy against the feeling that one has been cheated on the contract. (Oh, and if anyone actually believes that Christians have it easy because of their beliefs, then that person is flat out stupid. I don't know that a faith in the afterlife even reduces the fear of death, much less solves it.)
What broke the cholic fever, in the end, was seeing how funny it was. I wasn't cheated of anything. I was the one who was putting things into before/after, and I might as well be ticked off that I wasn't 6'4".
Casting your mind on death is like placing your finger on a tonsil: there is a natural gag reflex that keeps you from staying there long. However, the spell was broken because I realized that time has no meaning. That doesn't mean I don't want more time, but it means that a straight line of one hundred years of poverty and friendlessness is less than seventy years with decades of high living and decades of comfort.
Let's extend that further: What is my life made up of? Is it every year, totaled? Who says? I'm the only one inking the pages and stitching the binding of the biography, and I don't have to follow any order, or order. If the IRS can ignore all of my non-work time in its biography of me, can I ignore all my labor time in my own biography? The three years I spent as a father of twins may be the biggest years, and the three years making the most money might be regarded as a vacation, and the order in which I tell my biography is up to me.
Time doesn't break into seconds and minutes and hours. Those are measurements of clocks and motions of planets and degrees of a circle. I would not argue with the power company that their kilowatt hour is merely a construct, but for the life lived, for what we call our life, each moment is connected as one thing or is broken free by our own loves and wills.
The child who dies and the senior citizen are both cheated of clock time, because who can say to anyone else how much living that person has done? However, whenever the end comes, we can pronounce ourselves well pleased if we construct a pleasing life, if we realize that we own time, that we do not yield to its laws, but that its laws are subservient to our experience.