In the wake of my wife’s death, one curious phenomenon involved newspapers and the news. Whatever cells or receptor sites within them are attuned to current events had gone numb. Actually, they had shrunk, like the human stomach after a fast. I could take in only so much, which was very little. In retrospect, and signaling that this phenomenon has passed, I do wonder what was going on. Perhaps I was more tuned into the eternal, the issues that inhabit that blank spot between the dead and the living. Perhaps I was just exhausted. No, I could only have been selectively exhausted, for it was the polemical that turned me off so thoroughly. I would stare at a newspaper, the New York Review of Books, anything involving contemporary, or even critical, thought…and retreat. When pressed, I would blank out. The whole organism was resisting. The source was something deep, totally beyond my control and seemingly permanent.
Wrong. I am pleased to report the return of interest in such matters. And just in time for Armageddon. A term which, by the way, is neither accurate, nor helpful. Nothing more than history repeating itself, as Marx put it, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. And the problem with farce is that to enjoy it, you have to be in the audience. It’s a different matter on stage. On the receiving end of a loud, cruel blow, your face smarts. As a spectator, a slap is the stuff of slapstick. All of which poses a significant problem for any red blooded American. Which is why we should look to Britain. Where Labour’s David Miliband, recently cartooned in the satirical magazine Private Eye as the new ‘Prince of Darkness’…actually bought the cartoonist’s original artwork. Which he has hung on the wall of his home. A man who regularly makes serious pronouncements on everything from UK poverty to Gaza…wants to see himself lampooned badly enough to shell out lots of money…and has made no secret of it. He has also made no big thing of it. In fact, this little story only emerged in a casual interview with the current editor of Private Eye. End of story. Not that there was ever a beginning.
In any case, damned if I’m not back in the world of news. Following the events of the day. Getting worked up. Working out, one might say, my frustrations. Of which there are plenty. Especially as the night grows, the darkness looming darker as the hours advance. Who knows what old anxiety lies at the heart of this? My challenge, for the time being, is to accept. When sleep ceases, long about 4:30 AM, I get up, muse upon my emotional state, have a bite of chocolate, stare out the living room window, steady my breathing. And hope for the best. And the best is often disappointing. A return to bed, a succession of obsessive thoughts, an occasional glimpse of the bedroom ceiling, until it is all over, the night, and it becomes official, the day.
But for now, I rejoice in this thing about the newspapers and magazines and online articles. Somehow, I am with it. Sucked downward by grief, I have bobbed back to the surface. True, there is a worrying tendency to be everyone’s friend at Kepler’s, local bookstore and in my mind, potential site of my own launch into literature. I imagine having a reading here, and also imagine that it can’t hurt to be known to the staff. Possibly can’t help either. Who can say? The guy who sells me today’s Kipling even tells me his name. Good to be so extroverted and buoyant and all, I tell myself rolling out the door.
Okay, I admit that it took until this morning to hear, almost inadvertently, of the derailment of the northbound Coast Starlight, Amtrak’s train to Seattle. Still, I did hear. Which led me right to the San Francisco Chronicle website, which…go figure…had CBS news footage of the (minor) collision of two trains at the Oakland station. Did not look like much, but the thing, startlingly prominent, was the close-up of a rather dazed passenger standing on the platform and regarding the slightly damaged locomotives. Phyllis. Partner of recently deceased Clint. I knew she was heading to Seattle on this very train, but of course had forgotten until this cosmic message.
Followed only hours later by an actual telephonic message, Phyllis herself calling as the greatly delayed Starlight zipped across Lake Shasta at 3:30 in the afternoon. Making it only 10 or 11 hours late, which at one phase in the train’s existence was more or less par for the course. Do not underestimate the chutzpah of a greedy railway, such as the Union Pacific, owner of the Seattle-bound tracks. Another story. In any case, I quite understood Phyllis’ delight. It is a glorious natural place, California, and the normal schedule of the train rolls passengers through the upper Sacramento River canyonlands at something like 5 AM. So there is much to be said for a delay in terms of scenery. The tracks roll through the river canyon, climb up and out to skirt the lava flows at the base of Mount Shasta. And it is all glorious.
And I learned something during the phase of my life in which I took this train to Seattle quite a few times. That being off schedule was often the best. One missed so much by being on time. And since I am so filled with regret for all that I have lost in life, particularly the time…when I could have, should have, been doing so many other things…having taken 11 years to progress from rehabilitation hospital to my first full-time job at age 32. In short, I identify with the Coast Starlight. Late, but with compensations. A situation that applies, seemingly, whether one is on or off the train. And of course, America’s railways were once great, that is to say, headed for tragedy, as well as Chicago. And now they are a farce, but being in the midst of the farce is both scenic and pleasant and something I heartily recommend. Do book a sleeping compartment. If you can’t sleep at home, not sleeping on the rails really won’t matter.