Men standing around broken machines

I realized not long ago that my age of deep feelings has passed. For much of my life I was able to bring myself to an emotional boil by reading or writing. I used this as a kind of fuel and assured myself that in my agonies I was more intense than the person sitting next to me on the subway. But I have come to sympathize with those men who stood around saying little, who gathered around the open hoods of brown cars or around malfunctioning typewriters. That is how I remember them, circa 1980, when I was a slip of paper in a pullover shirt.

Somewhere during the sensitive age that ensued I learned that it is okay to cry and, being a boolean kid, I concluded that those who do not cry are not okay. I cultivated sensitivity like an orchid. As I nursed my anguish I thought I was working things out brilliantly, but in many cases I was not resolving anything but rather pointing at my burdens and expecting to be admired for the act of pointing. I wrote a great deal: tens of thousands of words.

When I was fifteen (it was ten years before he would actually go) my grandfather was very ill. I wanted him to say he loved me before he died. It was not something he could say easily; the words were a burden. But I felt that I needed it. I passed the request on to my grandmother several times over months, and finally, one day as I was walking out of the hospital, he said the words. (Or was it years later, over the phone, during another health scare? Anyway, I know that at some point I asked for the words and that he said them.)

I did no harm to the man by making him say “I love you, buddy.” Still, I feel lousy writing those words in his quotation marks. He had his reasons to shy away from vulnerability with a male descendant. But I'd learned somewhere that men don't express love and that you must encourage them to say it, force it out of them if needed. I thought I was doing my grandfather a favor.

We tormented him; we drank his soda and replaced it with food coloring and water and then we snickered in the hallway when we heard him yelling about his root beer going flat. He told us off-color jokes. So when he told me he loved me, it did not mean anything. I didn't feel relief or closure. I was simply creating a memory, hoping to archive him, but whatever emotions I filed away on hearing those words are now missing. I remember instead that he pressed a few dollars in my hand when I was 16. He took me out a mile from shore on a boat and let me steer.

My brother once told me it shouldn't be a lot of work to love someone, but I didn't believe him. When I began to date Mo, who is now my fiancé, I sent her a long email explaining who I was and what I stood for. She didn't reply but we went out a few nights later and talked about power tools and related subjects. The conversation went on for an hour. “I like this,” she said, “much more than those long emails.” So that was the last long email I ever sent. I eat better now and my skin has improved. I think more often about those men standing around a car, or my grandfather and his fellow geologists, entering caves and picking out crystals with pickaxes. It's not a desire to return to some old bad past. Mo is going to keep her name, and I am going to have that name tattooed on my arm, emblazoned on a red heart with an arrow through it.

I think about the men because there are two futures: the near and wild future—the future of Web 2.0, the war on terror, and midterm elections—thrashing and blind like a baby mouse in the grass. And there is the other, much older future, which is basically an enormous, ever-widening archaeological dig. They're digging up old Roman bones, pilgrim gristle, and mysterious chunks of iron that may have been astrolabes. Shovels in hand, people fall over dead onto the piles of ancient coffeehouse newspapers and loose pioneer trash that they have themselves exhumed. Time passes; it could be a few days or a millennium. Someone digs them up and holds their skull in hand and wonders: what was the dig like then? There is nothing wrong with the newer future. Those who make it work for them will be powerful and rich. But that older future seems to have more room in it for those quiet, dry-eyed men. And I know I want, someday, to join their group as it stands frowning around a steaming car engine, each trying to figure out what went wrong.




Ftrain.com is the website of Paul Ford and his pseudonyms. It is showing its age. I'm rewriting the code but it's taking some time.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


@20, by Paul Ford. Not any kind of eulogy, thanks. And no header image, either. (October 15)

Recent Offsite Work: Code and Prose. As a hobby I write. (January 14)

Rotary Dial. (August 21)

10 Timeframes. (June 20)

Facebook and Instagram: When Your Favorite App Sells Out. (April 10)

Why I Am Leaving the People of the Red Valley. (April 7)

Welcome to the Company. (September 21)

“Facebook and the Epiphanator: An End to Endings?”. Forgot to tell you about this. (July 20)

“The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. An essay for TheMorningNews.org. (July 11)

Woods+. People call me a lot and say: What is this new thing? You're a nerd. Explain it immediately. (July 10)

Reading Tonight. Reading! (May 25)

Recorded Entertainment #2, by Paul Ford. (May 18)

Recorded Entertainment #1, by Paul Ford. (May 17)

Nanolaw with Daughter. Why privacy mattered. (May 16)

0h30m w/Photoshop, by Paul Ford. It's immediately clear to me now that I'm writing again that I need to come up with some new forms in order to have fun here—so that I can get a rhythm and know what I'm doing. One thing that works for me are time limits; pencils up, pencils down. So: Fridays, write for 30 minutes; edit for 20 minutes max; and go whip up some images if necessary, like the big crappy hand below that's all meaningful and evocative because it's retro and zoomed-in. Post it, and leave it alone. Can I do that every Friday? Yes! Will I? Maybe! But I crave that simple continuity. For today, for absolutely no reason other than that it came unbidden into my brain, the subject will be Photoshop. (Do we have a process? We have a process. It is 11:39 and...) (May 13)

That Shaggy Feeling. Soon, orphans. (May 12)

Antilunchism, by Paul Ford. Snack trams. (May 11)

Tickler File Forever, by Paul Ford. I'll have no one to blame but future me. (May 10)

Time's Inverted Index, by Paul Ford. (1) When robots write history we can get in trouble with our past selves. (2) Search-generated, "false" chrestomathies and the historical fallacy. (May 9)

Bantha Tracks. (May 5)

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