Monday, October 4, 2021

Two old men speak.

I had a helluva week last week. 

And I probably could have written that sentence as a summation of my week at any point in the last 20 months or so, since the forces of stupidity, fact-denial and evil have taken over the world. Not to mention disease.

Being unemployed--at least without the kind of 'working for the man-type' job I've had since May, 1980, leaves you staring into a psychological abyss. You don't know what's next. You have nothing you can rely on. Your normal relationship with deadly pathogens is all-at-once a question mark and everything that was standard in your life has vanished. My response to stress has always been the same. I double-down and do what I do best. Which is work.

When Friday at four rolled around, however, I finally closed up shop and decided to call my oldest friend, _______. For the purposes of this blog, I'll call him, Herman. 

Herman and I met when we were 13--precisely 50 years ago--and were 9th graders in an elite private school in Westchester County, New York. We've stayed in touch from the slaughters in the Vietnamese jungles, through Richard Nixon, through marriages and children and setbacks and the deaths of our parents, and now, as Herman bravely battles for his health, we still start talking and don't stop for hours.

Some things never change.

Herman's the person who reminded me of this line from the movie "Stand by Me," directed by Rob Reiner based on the novella by Stephen King. I worked with King--shot a commercial with him-- and have never really taken him all that seriously as an artist, but he hits on these lines like a Rocky Marciano short right or a Mickey Mantle round-tripper.

The Writer: [voiceover] It happens sometimes. Friends come in and out of your life, like busboys in a restaurant.  [typing on computer] I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?

Herman and I started in a nostalgic vein, then we covered the usual territories. Our health, our aches, our wives and kids, our jobs, sports, and even our hopes and dreams. We're old now. But we still have hopes and dreams. Young people don't understand that about old people. We're not pre-dead. We're still dreaming.

For Herman, it's playing some golf--a new sport for him--and going for his daily swim--an old sport. For me, it's my work, my writing and my long walks with an increasingly creaky pup, Whiskey, who feels no guilt about waking me at four am on a Saturday when I am in an uncharacteristically deep sleep.

Toward the end of our call, we started talking about poems we were read or we read ourselves when we were boys. I'm not sure kids read poems today--it seems very un-Insta, and they are poorer for it. Herman remembered from his boyhood this poem. It's short. But like a Marciano right, it packs a wallop.

Epitaph on a Waiter by David McCord

By and by
God caught his eye.

That seemed a pretty good summation of a lot of things. It's brief and funny. But it's deep and dark, as well. 

And it should serve to remind us all that our time on this benighted but enchanting planet is short. Sometimes too long. But often too short. We can watch our weight, exercise and take our meds. We can seek peace and avoid pizza. But sooner or later, by and by, god--or whomever--will catch our eye.

There's nothing we can do about that.

It makes me think of this, by Herrick. 

And of this, even further below, by Housman. That's enough poetry for any one day, probably too much. Get to work.

By and by.

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Robert Herrick - 1591-1674

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.


To an Athlete Dying Young

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

No comments: