Two weeks into my freshman year of college, I write and submit my first essay. The class is the history of western civilization. We are studying various thinkers of Grand Importance, including Aristotle and Saint Augustine and others whose names I have long since forgotten.
The graduate assistant returns my work with the following comment:
“When writing about history, it is customary to use the past tense.”
I remember trying to ingratiate myself to this particular graduate assistant, but I was young and nervous and not at all sure about who I was or what I was doing, while he was a haughty, stuck-up, son-of-a-bitch. We had little basis for a constructive relationship.
Now, after a few trifling decades, I feel confident in my abilities as a writer, especially in my selection of the present tense to discuss either the past or future. Atypical use of verb tenses is part of the official, patent-pending, Joe Berman writing style, as interested readers can now analyze and mull over in assorted publications. The present tense conveys a sense of immediacy and importance, and it helps break down the oppressive structure that time imposes on our lives.
Everything happens NOW.
Like in that movie that won lots of awards.
At the Atlanta airport, after a grueling red-eye from San Francisco, I am waiting curbside for a ride into town. Suddenly I hear a *thunk* and possibly a *crack*. I look down to find my cell phone on the hard concrete. I pick it up, I press buttons. Flickers of green light appear at the bottom of a screen that is otherwise dark. I know very well what this means.
It means I’m screwed.
Like the baby bird in the kiddy book, I walk from one car to the next, asking the drivers “Are you my Uber? Are you my Uber?” They are not my Uber. Without the phone I have no way of knowing who my Uber is, nor can I contact him or her, nor do I even know if my request went through. After ten minutes I abandon these tactics and make my way to MARTA, which is the subway. Which I should have done in the first place, because I like subways and the MARTA line is convenient to the hotel.
Fortunately, downtown Atlanta is very much a hotbed of modern civilization, and I am able to get the phone repaired that morning. I make my way to an official fix-it shop for Google phones, located on Peachtree Street, just off Peachtree Lane. The tech, a black guy who is way hipper than I am, insists that I tell him exactly where I live in the Boston area, because it turns out he’s from Boston, too. Small world. He kids me for being a dumb-ass who drops his phone on concrete. He also susses that I’m Jewish, and he enjoys talking about his experiences with the Chosen People, all quite positive.
After waiting for an hour at the Starbucks across the street, I return to the shop to reclaim the phone, which is fixed as promised. Awaiting me on the repaired phone are two text messages. One is from someone in the repair shop telling me that my phone is ready. The second is from Uber, announcing a $6.00 charge for being a no-show.
The next day, after the conference, I ride MARTA back to the airport. A three-year-old girl toddles into the car, followed by a baby in a stroller, followed by the mother pushing the stroller. Mom is a young black woman, perhaps in her mid twenties, lithe and agile, wearing a crop top that I cannot help but notice exposes stretch marks on her belly.
“You got the whole crew with you,” I tell her.
“Uh, uh. The six-year-old is at school.”
The toddler sits on the bench next to me and starts kicking my suitcase.
“Young lady, you cut that out right now!” says the Mom.
“It’s OK,” I say. “A little kicking isn’t going to hurt this thing.”
Mom gives the daughter a look, and the daughter stops kicking.
They get off at the next stop. They jostle a bit, because the toddler doesn’t quite stay as close to her family as necessary. You don’t want to lose your kid on a subway. But they make it out, and the train moves on and I never see them again.
How many people am I? This is a question that popped up and that I am struggling to answer, perhaps because I am spending the week hopscotching the continent and taking on a different persona, or two, at each destination. United Airlines picks me up from my two-day ski vacation and deposits me into the science conference. Southwest Airlines delivers me from the science conference to Minnesota, where I grew up, and where I spend the day with friends and then my mother. Delta Airlines is taking me from Minnesota back to Boston, where I return to the role of Joe the Husband and Dad. Tomorrow I expect to take the five-year-old to the Temple for Sunday school.
I don’t think previous generations lived like this. I’m also guessing that they did not find life as confusing as I find it, but that’s an awfully broad statement on my part.
Sun Peaks is a ski resort in British Columbia that is not well known in the neighboring country to the south, but should be. It’s a lovely, modern, expansive place that is not at all difficult to get to, assuming you don’t mind changing planes (which I don’t.) On my visit, the resort hosts a few locals, one American (me), and a whole bunch of retired old dudes from Australia and New Zealand. On the chairlifts these guys all tell me the same story in their disarming Aussie/New Zealand accents: They’re here for two weeks, or two months, or the whole winter season, and that the skiing is just fantastic, well worth the ride across the Pacific Ocean.
Later that week, at neighboring Silver Springs resort, it’s Aussie Day, where the Aussies ski down the hill in fun costumes. Several of the old dudes are dressed as teddy bears, and I give them fist bumps in the lodge. Yet we also have young women, and they’re skiing in bikinis, and at least one is topless. I know this because three of them ski right pass me, granting me a view of more bare skin on backs than one normally sees over snow.
So I yell something. A holler, a whoop of some sort—it seems appropriate, it seems rude not to acknowledge them. But what message am I actually communicating? Am I cheering their audacity, the bare skin itself, or because they are better skiers than I am? I don’t really know.
The conference I attend in Atlanta is the annual get-together of NSTA, the National Science Teachers Association. When I started in publishing the NSTA conference attracted 20,000 teachers, all of the major science publishers, and heavy-hitter scientists like evolution theorist Stephen Jay Gould and paleontologist Bob Bakker and lots of NASA astronauts. This year’s attendance is down to 3,000, and the keynote comes from a local third-grade teacher who knows a few tricks for making balloon rockets (I exaggerate.) The pandemic is only partially to blame for the decline of a conference like this one. Times have changed.
My stay in Minnesota lasts slightly less than 24 hours. I will return in April for a real visit, bringing along the two boys. On the docket is a Twins game, time with the two grandmothers and friends and cousins, maybe some biking or gardens or museums or whatever. Alas, we will not have a visit with my father, who departed the world over a month ago. I’m still wrapping my head around that.
I am now back home. One moral of the trip is that modern life depends on systems and on strangers, especially when you’re traveling. Pilots, air traffic controllers, baggage handlers, whoever puts up the gate announcements at the airport—they all have to do their jobs properly if you have any chance at all to make it on JetBlue from Worcester, Mass, to Reno, Nevada, with a connection at JFK, or to or from wherever else you expect to be traveling. People complain when the system fails them, but we really should be in awe of how well it works the vast majority of the time.
Hey, take the Devonian era, for lack of a better example, which began over 400 million years ago and lasted for the ensuing 60 million up through the Carboniferous. Diverse and abundant fishes swam the Devonian seas, the first ammonites appeared with their cutesy coiled shells, and a brave four-legged amphibian stuck its head out of the water and tried life on land. Do you think you could have caught a nonstop to Reno back then? Even if you could have hitched a ride on a pterodactyl, which would not evolve for another couple hundred million years, there would have been NO ONE TO FLY THE DAMN THING! Don’t let those Flintstones cartoons fool you, there were no pterodactyl pilots when pterodactyls existed, and those prehistoric reptiles did not live tamely with anybody, let alone humans, nor did they offer humorous asides to the camera when no one was looking. Back in the Devonian, as well as the Silurian, Carboniferous, Ordovician, the entire Mesozoic Period, and even up through the Pleistocene Epoch, for Chrissake, the most efficient way to travel the world was to die, get fossilized, and let tectonic plates carry you where they would. And you can forget about frequent flyer miles.
That’s my report for the day. Please drop me a line, and hope to see you soon on the next happy occasion.