As readers of my ravings likely know by now, my father was a U.S. Marine. To him — and, so, to us — time was an adversarial construct. There was no later. There was no gradually. There was no patience. There were just two things: (1) Now. (2) Now, God damn it! Growing up in an environment like that makes it rather difficult to come to any sort of peace with time.
I’ve come to think that getting bored only means you’ve failed to master the fine art of doing nothing when there’s nothing to be done: a skill you can learn from any house cat. (John Gierach, Fool’s Paradise).
I never knew boredom as a child. My father had three favorite expressions:
- Make yourself useful.
- While you’re standing there with your face flapping in the breeze, [fill in the task].
- While you’re standing around picking your nose, [fill in the task].
The most dangerous thing we could do was nothing.
The Long March
In May of 1959, when I was five years old, my parents bought their first house and moved my older sister (Lynn), my younger brother (Keith), and me from the apartment they’d been renting. Our new address was 115 Hamilton Avenue. The house had about an acre of property to be maintained. Shortly after we moved in, as my father was handing rakes to Keith and me, he said, “This is yours to take care of.”
Keith and I already knew better than to argue, to protest, to appeal to anything like reasonability, or to ask questions. And I don’t know what Keith was thinking. But I was thinking something like this:
“Uh, this may have escaped your notice, Dude. But I’m five, and Keith won’t be four until September. Don’t you think telling us that shit now is a little over the top, to say nothing of intimidating? And not for nothin’, but Keith and I might have some childhoods to get on with, ya know what I mean?”
I’m alive today because I kept my yap shut.
The other kids in the neighborhood came to refer to our compound as Stalag 115. (I dearly wish I were making that up.) And Keith and I forged our respective relationships with time inside the wire.
The good news is making peace with time is a skill that can be acquired. The bad news is it takes time to acquire it.
I’ve spent my life working on it. I’ve gotten better at it, but I’ve perfected nothing. I have learned, though, that pressure and guilt are largely self-inflicted, that creative contemplation can be a source of peace, that time is a prize to be vigilantly protected and judiciously spent.
Most important, I’ve learned my time is mine to, as Albert Einstein put it, [refuse] to bow blindly to conventional prejudices but honestly and courageously [use my] intelligence and [fulfill] the duty to express the results of [my] thoughts in clear form, and to be unapologetic for having done so.
Imagine a world in which all of us could use our time to do just that — and to respect each other for doing it.