We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. So said Henry David Thoreau. I know, because I beat the phrase into three years of eleventh graders so that they would have something concrete to say about Transcendentalism. In payment to the karmic gods, I’m forever haunted by these words I made them parrot, along with, “You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours even in a poor-house.”
Today I took the train (at peak hours!) into the city to see a screening of a documentary. It’s a so-called lost film from 1971 about Roman Polanski palling around with a Formula 1 driver. I was asked to go to this advance screening by a guy who runs a website for which I have agreed to write some film reviews. At the time I thought, who would pay money to go see this incredibly niche film?
Maybe no one, as the screening was cancelled. I was the only person who showed up for it, like a dupe.
As I walked back to Grand Central, surprisingly unperturbed, it occurred to me that I was much less upset about having wasted my time than I would have been had I been late to the screening. My train that morning had been five minutes late, which had put my time-sensitive scheduling to the test. I made it to the place with two minutes to spare, of course fruitlessly.
Isn’t that sick? I wondered. That I am so stressed by the idea of running a few minutes late I would rather the whole event be called off? I even had trouble getting to sleep last night, thinking of how I would have to wake up and be out in time.
Lately I’ve had a string of successes with being perfectly on time. This comes of course with living in one place for long enough that you get a good sense of how long transportation takes. But it’s a valuable thing, being not late but not early, especially in the city; for a while in college I toyed with smoking, only because it gave me something to do while waiting those last few minutes before a reservation or an 8:00 curtain.
On the other hand, I also recently had a wonderful experience with tardiness. A friend and I were to go to a Buddhist center, of all places. We both arrived early to the rendezvous point and stayed in our cars, thinking the other wasn’t there yet. By the time we figured out our error, it was too late to go. I had been mildly annoyed at first, but the afternoon morphed into an odyssey that involved encounters with wild turkeys, a search for dry ice, and the recovery of a trashed armchair. As I said to my friend, “Nothing we got at that center would be more spiritual than this.” Cue Grey’s Anatomy indie music montage. We all have similar “everyday is a winding road” stories.
It reminds me of that credo, When God closes a door, he opens a window. Or as I put it, everything’s for the best – because how could it be otherwise? When I was applying to college, my mother, among many others, offered up this piece of advice on a regular basis: “Well, these things have a way of working out.” Of course they do! Because there’s no possible way of ever knowing if Swarthmore would have been better for me than NYU. So why bother thinking about it?
Still, at a point in my life where I am very consciously working toward evenness of mind, nothing quite upsets me like the possibility of being late. Maybe I don’t like apologizing to people, for one thing. Also, in the case of a film or a piece of theater, I hate missing the beginning, and in this case it would have been worse as I had a job to do – and what if they didn’t admit latecomers? Now, I was much less frantic as I hustled to the building in Times Square than I would have been a few years ago, thanks to my “it won’t kill me” or “at least I’m not a child prostitute in Cambodia” mantra work. And I think that must be the goal: the balance of making diligent effort to arrive on time with not being distressed if you don’t. It’s like “productivity,” balancing making it work in the world with not beating yourself up for spending seemingly empty hours.
I recently read Siddhartha (yes, I’m slowly making the obligatory survey of Obvious Spiritual Literature), and on my walk back to the train I thought of the part where Siddhartha goes on a business trip.
When he arrived there, the rice was already sold to another merchant. However, Siddhartha remained in that village several days, entertained the farmers, gave money to the children, attended a wedding and returned from the journey completely satisfied.
I did pause for a few minutes after stepping out of the building, and went through a little checklist. I wondered how I could Siddharthize this little daytrip. Anyone to call and see if they want coffee? Any stores to go to, things you can’t find in Yonkers? Any shows whose box offices you want to pop into and try to get a cheap ticket?
No, not really.
Out of laziness I didn’t put my earbuds in; I just walked. I got to hear one well-dressed yuppie moan to another well-dressed yuppie – “You see how this collar, it’s all rumpled?” I walked through the Christmas shops at Grand Central, artisanal and Brooklynesque to a fault, and didn’t buy anything. I went to the bookstore and browsed and almost missed my train.
Nothing productive. No wedding, no entertaining of the farmers.
On the walk back from the station to my house I still wasn’t listening to music so I was able to really say “Good morning” to an old man walking his dog who said it to me first (the man not the dog). That felt important, like See Daniel you had a human interaction without having to worry about whether you shouted because your music was on. But was it worth the $20 I blew on train fares?
Since as far back as I care to remember, I’ve played a little game with myself. I might have written about it here, before. Actually, allow me to just excerpt from the Great American Novella I wrote in college and promptly shared with exactly four people. I haven’t looked at this story in years and it’s frighteningly earnest, so be gentle and whisper sweet things in my ear:
When I lost things I sometimes tried to make up for it by thinking of the stuff I’d gotten for free, a counter-balancing thing. Usually it was about material things, like I’d lost my scarf but my parents had just bought me a DVD or I’d downloaded some Ben Folds without paying. Now these things had been given to me, free of charge, whether or not I was worthy of them: Candace’s smile, Molly’s sex, this day, this air, this park, this life. There was so much to be given, more than I ever could lose. After a minute I remembered the word for these things.
Today I walked home in the cold and I thought, that game’s all well and good, just like David Foster Wallace’s thought experiments which so influence me. But the trick has got to be to get to the point where you no longer need to play it. I shouldn’t have to try to make a balance in my head of $20 for two hours of time. I remember where I was in Grand Central today when I had the thought, look, money is an illusion of worth anyway, it’s a constructed sense of worth: think of the pisspoor job you did teaching those parents’ children yesterday, and they paid you for that. I’m not being cynical; it was a bad teaching day. It wasn’t worth it.
The games go on, my blood pressure rises and falls. I’ve made progress on this path of being a human. I can sit in traffic and get my shoulders to drop their tension; I’m only mad now at the personal sins, venial, like when a person takes way too fucking long to make a fucking right turn.
But I still don’t have an answer for the most troubling question of all, which is why I should be allowed to have a long enough life where I make any progress, while so many others are clipped off in the midst of an ignorance or an innocence. And I don’t have an answer as to whether or not that makes me beholden to make something of life. I don’t have an answer yet to why I shouldn’t be late, always, forever, for any reason or no reason at all.
For the last month or so I’ve listened many times to a piece of music from the film The Year of Living Dangerously. Composed by Maurice Jarre, it has a quiet contemplativeness to it – the music feels dialectic to me, even though I’m not sure I really know what that word means; I just feeeeeel it. And I think the person who made the accompanying Youtube slide show of images from the movie did something really quite nice, intentionally or happily. The film deals with many things, but certainly the question I mention above, about why some and not others, comes into play in a story about white people in love in an impoverished Indonesia.
This particular piece of music swells right at the end, and it’s matched by an image of Mel Gibson, the main character, walking to the plane that will take his privileged ass out of the chaotic country. Right around 4:30 there’s a frozen close-up frame, and it might just be an accident, but his eyes are closed in a way that perfectly captures, I think, what the character must be feeling at that moment, on that walk: a sense of failure and an awareness of waste, and the grim duty of having to be the one who keeps going.
That combination of picture and score is a fitting note to end this on, as it is an example of perfect timing.
In the meantime, here’s to continually trying to ride on the railroad, and not the other way round.