Ninth Letter is pleased to be able to feature "Miser's Farthings," a long form essay by Patrick Madden that we'll be serializing in three parts.
Madden's essay is obsessed--in the best way--with lost moments and time that cannot be reclaimed--and who among us has not stewed in a car seat during rush hour? Madden first notices life's process of subtraction in an elevator ride that doesn't go as smoothly as he'd like, leading him to count the seconds with a stopwatch in another elevator ride. But such concentration inevitably leads to unbidden memory, and off his essay then goes, into the byways of lost time worth saving. What is the value of all this time, these little rescued moments, and how does the literary form of the essay help us to approach them? Read on, and Patrick Madden will show you the way.
A LIFE OF SINGULAR EVENTS
But this essay is not only about memories. It's about the ways small moments accumulate into a life, make a person, in ways identifiable and, even more, ways unconscious and imperceptible. Maybe it's about the partially false sense we have that events can be distinct, separate from one another, or about the qualitative judgment we apply to what happens and what we do. Certainly there's something real about the feeling that only sometimes are we "really living," while other times we're stuck in ruts, making other plans, watching the wheels go round and round, even slipping backwards, wasting time. But I'm not sure the distinction bears scrutiny. Any container we make for experience is porous, easily breached by the thought that "I'm still here." You can tell just by looking at me that I'm no longer that gap-toothed goofball in a stunningly fashionable shirt.
But on the other hand, I feel like I've always been me. Mostly without intending to, I've strung together a seamless life full of change and influence, recognizably mine, easily broken into stages, full of minutiae to which I can bear only general record.
I am the product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences,
attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and
the noise of wind under the tiles. Also of endless books.
-- C. S. Lewis Surprised by Joy
I, too, could catalog and condense the whole, tell the generalities that made up my early life, but let's not. Instead, let's remember here things that happened only once and yet struck with such force that they shaped me. For instance, because it arrived first: one summer afternoon (or was it spring? fall?) when I was in college (or earlier?) my family gathered for a picnic with a large group from church at Malapardis Park in Cedar Knolls. The purpose was recreational/celebratory, with grilled meats and potato salads, five-gallon jugs of "bug juice," and intermittent games of softball and horseshoes. Bored, my brothers and I began our own competition, vaulting the softball field's back fence to see who could clear it the most times within a minute. David won, as usual. Then we spied the backstop.
It was a straight-up twenty footer, not one of those bent-over specters. As I remember, we each had the idea simultaneously: let's race over that. As the oldest, I went first, while David kept the stopwatch. On "go," I jumped high, grabbing into chain-link diamonds, inserting my sneakertips, then scrambling at a respectable speed up, then gingerly over the pokey top, and, after a step or two down, fairly jumping the rest of the way to the ground. My brothers cried foul about both jumps, up and down, but were calmed soon enough when they realized the impossibility of judging what was "too high." The goal here was to get over the top and to the ground on the other side. They each took their turns, like me avoiding the pain of the top by moving cautiously, and like me earning a time somewhere in the low twenty seconds. As you'd expect if you knew me and my brothers, things quickly got more competitive. Dave was the first to pioneer a new method of scrambling up the front side then diving headfirst over the top, barbs be darned, so that his arms were a good four feet down the fence and he could simply kick his legs over, twist sideways, and drop to the ground. Sixteen seconds. Dan, undaunted, used the same style, to even better effect: fourteen seconds. I failed at the fence flop and essentially bowed out of the competition, but Dave and Dan kept at it a few more times, eventually getting down to twelve seconds and change, with Dave crowned this summer's (or spring's? fall's?) World's Strongest Madden.
I'll never get through the flood of moments that's come upon me these days as I've trained my mind on recalling these singular events. (And with what joy do I welcome them, having long believed my memory so poor.) Yet I'll revisit a few and fix them in language:
There was that one time we neighborhood kids entered the abandoned Whippany Paper Board Company property not across the Whippany River dam but through an underground tunnel that opened across the railroad tracks, hopping from dry patch to dry patch across the fetid puddles, our flashlights illuminating the cracks and insects; that other time we hung and shimmied across a pipe over the river. Once, we found a string of train cars sitting still on the tracks, so we uncoupled them and loosed their brakes, setting them rolling slowly toward the buildings in the distance; two men shouted angrily and gave chase, and I tripped on a railroad tie, falling quickly behind the older kids, but we all had enough of a head start that we escaped unrecognized and uncaptured.
One winter night not long after that, I was snooping through Notre Dame's underground steam tunnels with my volleyball teammate Bill "Super Primetime" Raney (the area was off limits, the tunnels were dangerous and spooky, and the entrance doors in the dorms were nearly always locked) when we happened upon an unlocked door into a dimly lit computer lab. There were all those machines, available for the taking (they certainly weren't locked to the tables, though there may have been security cameras in the dark corners), but we surreptitiously closed the door and kept on our way through the university's underground. For nearly two hours we explored, sometimes walking upright, sometimes crouching, sometimes crawling on hands and knees, sometimes slithering between boilinghot pipes on the pizza boxes we'd brought along for the purpose. Eventually we made our way into a dirt-floored, cobwebbed section that seemed to narrow to the point of impassability. Smudged with dirt and grime, sweaty with the heat of the steam, we climbed a wooden ladder resting against some pipes, up through a trapdoor, and into a chemistry professor's office, right under his desk. We decided that despite our filthy tank tops and shorts, it would be too uncomfortable and would take too long to wend our way back to our dorm underground, so we unlocked the office door and walked out into the hallway, past the students moiling in the computer lab, and out into the bitter cold.
One afternoon, playing two-person water-balloon hide-n-seek at John Lenox's house, I had the tremendous idea to sneak inside, climb the stairs, fill a bucket with water, scramble through the bathroom window onto a small roof overlooking the backyard, and wait patiently for him to happen by, which he did, slinking slowly, looking everywhere but up, making a very easy target. I intuited enough physics to time the drop just right, utterly soaking John. It was a moment of pure joy. John knew I had bested him, so we laughed and laughed and recounted the brilliant strategy with amazement for years after.
Many years ago, when I was flying from Utah to Uruguay to begin my two-year mission, having been primed to talk amiably with whoever crossed my path, I struck up a conversation with a large fellow seated next to me on the plane between Miami and Rio de Janeiro. This was a big mistake. Instead of opening an opportunity for me to share a message about my church, it gave him a chance to tell me about his exploits. For eight hours, when I should have been sleeping, he chewed my ear off. He had been everywhere, done everything, known everyone, he claimed. Early in the flight, I quickly shifted into "nod and keep quiet" mode, hoping he'd sense my disinterest or notice my obtrusive yawns. At the very least, I'd add no more fuel to the conversational fire. But he had his own fuel, some deep-seated need to be admired, I suppose. Ultimately, the only specific details I recall are that he claimed to be one of David Byrne's close friends, and as proof of this, he offered the lyrics to the Talking Heads' song "Life during Wartime," specifically "This ain't no Mudd Club or C.B.G.B.'s," two music clubs in New York that this fellow used to frequent (with Byrne? I can't remember. Probably.). He was (somehow) the inspiration for that cryptic song. I'm sure he explained to me exactly how.
But what's interesting is how those several hours of forced insomnia, which, in their initial happening were so full of unbelievable stories and extravagant details, are now reduced to a cautionary tale in which the young missionary intent on proselytizing gets his comeuppance. All I can muster from memory is a minute's worth of summary.
By simply choosing to focus hazily on these singular events, I'm avalanched by them, far too many to write. So let me leave behind the listing for a moment, to shift to the things that become "things," family inside jokes, one-time events that we convert into stories, always poised to spring forth from the conversation, like the time I voiced my misunderstanding of a national jeweler's slogan, "Every kiss begins with Kay." Vexed by rampant commercialism and exaggerated claims, I said to the room, "What a stupid commercial. You don't need one of their rings to get kissed." My children, incredulous, waited for the punchline, but when none appeared, started laughing. Karina soon explained that it was a pun, that the word kiss begins with the letter k. And I call myself a writer! So now not only when that commercial comes on, but whenever someone feels the urge to poke fun at Dad, you'll hear from the end of the dinner table or the back seat of the car that jingle--"Every kiss begins with Kay"--followed breathlessly by their best Dad imitation--"What a stupid commercial." It's always good for a laugh.
I'm not always the slow one, not getting what's obvious to others. Before Karina and I married, during the few months she lived nearby and ate with my family often, this scene played out at the dinner table: Dad seated at the head, Mom next to him, me on his other side, Karina next to me, my youngest brother, Dan, at the other end of the table. Plate piled high with hamburgers and hot dogs hot from the grill, bag of buns, jar of pickles, sliced tomatoes and onions oozing juices into the cutting board, bottles of mayonnaise and mustard and ketchup scattered here and there, a pile of junk mail and napkins as centerpiece.
Dad: "Please pass the ketchup."
Dad: "Pass the ketchup, please."
Dad, getting impatient: "Pass the ketchup."
Confused, shifting looks
Dad, fully angered: "Dan! Why don't you pass the ketchup!?"
Dan, cowering: "The ketchup's right in front of you..."
Dad: "Oh. I mean the mustard."
This is how Karina began to understand what she was in for if she married me, and my father began to understand that he was in for a lot of (new) ragging from then on. Nowadays we skip straight to threat-level orange and we no longer bother with condimental fidelity to the original (indeed, nobody seems quite sure whether he was asking for ketchup or mustard, just that he'd switched the two). So it's "Dad, pass the pepper!" when we want salt, or "Dad, pass the juice!" when there's only milk on the table.
What have I done here, dear reader, if not engage in the same disgrace as my neighbor on the plane to Rio? The difference, I guess, is that you have been free to surf to another site, to cut off my rambling, to stop listening to my listing. Also, that I have not dropped any names (none that you'd know or be impressed by, anyway), nor have I claimed to be the inspiration behind any quirky pop songs. But if you must know, one detail I neglected to mention about the elevator ride to the top of the Empire State Building, where Karina and I shared our first kiss, is this: as we got off at the observation deck, Bryan Adams, the singer, got on, going down. I don't think our brief, anonymous encounter inspired his 1998 hit "Cloud Nine," with its "Well it's a long way up and we won't come down tonight," but you never know. What I do know is that one time, playing basketball with faculty and graduate students at Ohio University, I jumped to take a shot with elbow cocked, then crashed upon the head of internationally renowned poet Mark Halliday, sending him bleeding to the emergency room. I like Mark, and the game that day was very tame, so you can trust me that my attack wasn't intentional, but I still felt kind of bad, not only for him, but for all of us, because without him and the fellow who drove him to the hospital, we no longer had enough guys to play. But the reason I'm telling you this is that unknown to me, that exact day he had achieved the exact age his mother had reached when she died, so he wrote a poem called "Head Wound," in which one "big Patrick" figures prominently. This ain't no "Life during Wartime," but my story's more easily confirmed.
And maybe that's what this all comes down to: questions of worth: time-as-container or time-as-elevator, time-as-atmosphere, inescapable measure of duration as well as value. As long as we still live, we are held in its sway; it runs on interminably, ignorant of our progress or regress, our wishes to linger or pass over. The things we do to fill it may bring us joy or sorrow, may leave an imprint on memory or meld into our general perceptions or flow off into Oblivion. Some may be worth the while; many, in our flawed judgment, will not. We have a measure of control over the what and the when, but we are not entirely free, certainly not to determine significance or to decide what we will remember or how. Even the most seemingly important or most narratively appealing event (I appreciate every kiss with Karina as much as I did when our kisses were new) may fade into background, and does, more often than not.
I wish there were some small moral to give us hope, but I'm allergic to simplifications, so I'll avoid the bromides about seizing days or living each moment as if it were your last. Of course, I am well aware of the irony that, while I am writing and while you are reading, envious time is fleeing.
Life consists in what a man is thinking of all day.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson Journals
But perhaps I am never more alive than when I am essaying.
Patrick Madden is the author of Quotidiana (Nebraska, 2010). His personal and travel essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, the Iowa Review, Portland Magazine, River Teeth, and other journals, as well as in the Best Creative Nonfiction and Best American Spiritual Writing anthologies. He teaches creative nonfiction at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.