Posted by: davidlarkin | July 1, 2009

Time, Time, Time, See What’s Become of Me

In John Updike’s collection of his early short stories, The Early Stories: 1953-1975, in the story “In Football Season,” Updike describes the late adolescent’s attitude toward time, as his boisterous group of high school students meander home after a football game:

. . . we taunted the cold stars with song, one mile, two miles, three miles. How slowly we went! With what a luxurious sense of waste did we abuse this stretch of time! For as children we had lived in a tight world of ticking clocks and punctual bells, where every minute was an admonition to thrift and where tardiness, to a child running late down a street with his panicked stomach burning, seemed the most mysterious and awful of sins. Now, turning the corner into adulthood, we found time to be instead a black immensity endlessly supplied, like the wind.

Updike had a precociously mature sense of time in his early writing days, passing through the young adult phase where abuse of the freedom to use time as we please has made billions for purveyors of time-wasting activities, staying long enough to identify and sample it and be able to express it. Updike began making his living early as a young writer selling stories to the New Yorker. The struggle to support his young family likely produced his respect for time, with the need to produce marketable prose. With his Olympian powers of observation, he must have experienced insufficiency of time for responsibly and elegantly expressing in writing all he had to say, finalizing the product and getting it to market. As he says,

But we would-be novelists have a reach as shallow as our skins. We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves. From the dew of the few flakes that melt on our faces we cannot reconstruct the snowstorm.

From “The Beloved Man of Boston” in his Early Stories.

When I watch my 18 year old son play a combat video game for three hours because he needs to conquer the game, I marvel at his lack of concern for time. Then, I think of myself at 18, or even 35, and how I wasted time, I forgive him and pray for forgetfulness. Like Updike’s characters, he is turning the corner into adulthood. He is off to college. Unlike me at his age, he has some career and life goals already. Does the global economy put pressure consciously or unconsciously on this generation to set long-term goals? Presumably, his career goals will help him resist the temptation to waste time better than I did. I did not have any goals when I left for college, other than a generalized aim to satisfy my over-sized curiosity. Now, at age 61 (in two weeks), I consider my time precious, but what are my goals now? I still find myself wasting time playing solitaire, or watching Billy Mays’ commercials (may he rest in peace), rather than wasting time agonizing over what I can do that is a prudent use of my time. I look at my unread books in my library I bought with unlimited hope, when, even in my fifties, time for me was still a “black immensity endlessly supplied, like the wind.” I balk at the task of deciding which are still worth reading, of those which should I read, and in what order, while I add classic novels to my Kindle for 90 cents apiece.

So, is it a prudent use of my time to try to express my thoughts in verse? If a poem is written on a computer and no one reads it, is it still a poem? As Bishop Berkeley might say, “God reads it.” So, with that audience in mind, maybe writing a bad poem is not a prudent use of my time. And if a bad poem is written on a computer and even if someone reads it, is it really a poem?

Time, time, time
See whats become of me
While I looked around
For my possibilities
I was so hard to please

Paul Simon – Hazy Shade of Winter [1967 live version – Simon and Garfunkel click here]


  1. Dave — Thanks for a very interesting posting. It’s hard to think of Updike as being concerned about not enough time — he was so prolific: 21 novels, 18 story collections, a dozen books of poetry, another dozen books of essays and criticism, and even some children’s books. He wrote poetry pretty much up to the day he died. (One of his last poems, published in The New Yorker earlier this year, was about a dinner at the Arizona Inn in Tucson.) It’s incredible when you compare Updike’s output (and Mailer’s, and Roth’s, and … ) with renowned novelists who struggle to publish once a decade. (Hey, Pynchon, I’m talkin’ to you!)

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