Deadlines Are Different on a Maine Island
I spent a chunk of time this morning sitting on the beach, facing out toward the open ocean, toward Iceland, toward Ireland and Hamburg and Kiev. I got to the cold granite of the island’s eastern rim a little while before sunrise, but I really don’t know why.
My use of “sunrise” as a time marker represents a bit of a triumph of Bo over Kate. As editors go, Kate is all right, but like most editors, she has this thing about time. Deadlines, internal deadlines, drop-deadlines, blah blah blah. I don’t think she even knows what the word “deadline” really means. I read about it once. When they were building the Berlin Wall, the Germans had to figure out some way to keep the POWs and political prisoners — the ones who were doing the actual work — from nudging their way along and then running like mad toward Freedom. The Wall wasn’t up yet, so there was nothing physical to stop them from dashing off in their heavy work boots and muddy grey coveralls, slogging through the thick forests and across the frosty hills, listening breathlessly to the ping of bullets hitting bark and the barking of the dogs hitting the scent trail, until they reached the land of strippers and stout and round-the-clock electricity. So the Germans came up with something psychological instead. They stretched a line of tape, like police tape at a crime scene, from tree to tree to tree. “Cross this line,” the prisoners were told, “and you will be shot instantly.” That line became known as the “dead line,” a term probably invented by a particularly astute prisoner who noticed that everyone on the near side of the line was still breathing and everyone on the far side had quit the habit. So deadline means the absolute last point, the moment beyond which lies Death and Ruin and Corruption. Just as death gives meaning to life, deadlines give meaning to work.
But Kate uses deadline as a kind of first reminder. “By the way,” she says, “don’t forget that the deadline for your columns is 8 p.m.” If that were the deadline, then at 8:01 my column should bear no hope whatsoever of appearing on the Web site. It should be lying on the crystalline snowflakes of the Black Forest hills, its faint pulse gushing red across the acrid white landscape until it is heard no more.
But I’ve emailed columns as late as 9:30, and they’ve still run. That doesn’t keep Kate from insisting that 8:00 is the deadline, but she’s wrong. The 8 o’clock cutoff is merely the first line of defense designed to help her maintain her sanity by having all her copy in early. We seasoned correspondents know the score. We ship the columns when they’re ready and not a moment sooner.
So I’m sitting on the cold rock of GSI’s eastern shore without the benefit of a wristwatch/timepiece/chronograph/handcuff/apron string/umbilical cord strapped to my left wrist. Kate’s fixation with deadlines ran right into Bo’s insistence that time is a human construct designed to give some people power over a lot of others — “a clock is the face of slavery,” he said — and so, in an effort to go somewhat “native,” I rejected the uptight in favor of the rhythmic and the natural. And I’m sitting here at sunrise unaware of the time of day.
But I’m very much aware of the state of my spirit. At least, I think I am, after a long talk with Bo. The reincarnation thing was only one part of it. We kept the conversation going for a long time, off an on, with blasts of Philosophical Insight punctuated by an overpowering need to piss into the surf. We drank gallons of beer and drifted in and out of motor control, sleeping whenever the mood overcame us and eating whatever scraps we could find among the shacks of The Village.
And Bo talked about things that matter. He really is different from Other People, from the Hoi Polloi, from the Mindless Masses, from the Great Washed. Bo is a thinker, a real person, not one of the many zombies who slave and sweat from nine to five and toss and snore from ten to six all in a quiet, desperate attempt to buy two weeks each year in a small cottage by a lake. Bo is different from all that. He presses his mind into corners that others scuttle past in fear. He grapples with fundamental, universal truths, twisting them and flipping them until he knows their souls.
Remember how he said that nothing is ever created or destroyed? Like wood turning into flame, our spirits turn into some other kind of Being, some other kind of Existence, when we leave this Earthly Plane. He showed me the Reality of it all another way. “Take a deep breath,” he told me, stroking his oily black beard with one hand while holding a lukewarm beer with the other.
So I took a deep breath. I smelled low-tide bracken and distant cigarette smoke and my own need for a shower. Life can be rugged in the field.
“Now picture one of the molecules of oxygen in your lungs right now,” he commanded.
I imagined a tinker-toy chemical model of oxygen, even though I didn’t really know how many sticks and knobs to use.
“Now,” Bo said, “imagine where that molecule has been.” He explained that oxygen was formed within a heartbeat after the Big Bang, so that molecule of O2 has been drifting around the cosmos for thousands of millions of years. It was born inside a gas cloud that became a star that we can’t even see, a star so distant its light barely reaches the Earth, a star so old that it burned out eons before our sun could boil water. It blasted out of that star in a massive solar flare, a giant stellar belch that tossed hydrogen and shredded atoms millions of miles into the chill of Outer Space.
There it froze. It clumped together with a few billion similar refugees and formed a slushy iceball that bumped and rolled its way through the Dark Shadows of space, tugged by the gravity of a remote star system and wobbled from one course to another by the slaps and kisses of a thousand distant suns. It glommed onto other slushballs, getting bigger and more distinct, until at last it wandered too close to a mediocre little star and careened around it in a vast and terrifying arc.
That arc flung it into the path of a small piece of lifeless rock, and the little Space Slurpee smashed into the oozing, overheated boulder and vaporized into incoherent steam.
Our little oxygen molecule floated around this rock for a long time, and the rock beneath it cooled, and oceans formed. Our friend mixed with water for a time, then spent a few millennia breezing through the thin air. Millions of years later, a small puddle of green goo gave birth to wriggling strings of carbon that were capable of making other wriggling strings of carbon. Little OhTwo, as I’ve named him, was grabbed by one of these writhing critters and forced into simplistic slavery for a short while, but then the critter died and the molecule escaped when the cell wall ruptured.
OhTwo continued to wander the planet, and the cells in the goo evolved into minnows and trilobites and jellyfish. The molecule was mixed into water and sucked into the gills of a devilfish once, and it rafted along through lap after lap in its complex but underdeveloped bloodstream. Then it hooked up with some carbon and was returned to the sea, where a beam of ultraviolet light from the middle-aged sun pried it from its lover’s grasp and threw it off into the air again to continue its solitary journey.
“That little molecule of oxygen in your lungs right now has been breathed in and out by a billion creatures before you,” Bo said in a deep basso profundo. “It’s been farted out by whales and sneezed out by rhinos. It’s been hurled into rocks and sucked up into soda straws.
“And now, after all that, it bounces around your left lung like a microscopic ping-pong ball, eager to help you turn hot dogs into energy.
“And when you’re done with it, it will leave you and continue on, doing its little oxygen thing for millennia to come.”
He sucked down his fourteenth beer of the morning and fixed me with another of his patented glares.
“And you mean to tell me that you think our souls will die?”
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — SunTanDude: Bo, you’re the awesomest!
Comment — Gemstone: I also believe that our souls never die. I can feel that truth inside me. There’s a me in here, and I can’t believe that it just ends when my body ends. I’m not sure about Bo’s logic, but I like his sentiments.
Comment — GeorgeReynolds: George Reynolds, here. I’ve talked with Bo a few times, and he is one of the deepest thinkers I’ve ever met. He makes sense on a fundamental level.
Comment — Kate Fisher, editor: From now on, Van, your blog entries are due at eight o’clock sharp.
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.