One o’clock. I have been hooked up for fifteen minutes now. Have read the paper in a cursory way; will do more a thorough reading later. Am squirreling the columns of newsprint away against a harder time than this. This is just the beginning, after all: Nowhere near the crazy free-associating that always starts at some point later on.
One thirty. Know what’s a weird word? Harbinger. Okay, sure, a sign of things to come. The definition makes sense because it consists of good unexceptional words that don’t resist being understood. Indeed, they offer themselves up, sweetly, benignly: A sign (check) of things (check) to come (check.) But harbinger. What the hell kind of parade of senseless syllables is that? It is moreover one of those words that grows continuously stranger with repetition. Harbinger, harbinger, harbinger. Say it often enough in rapid succession, and you induce in yourself something like a spell of insanity, in the way a stroboscopic light can induce a seizure in one so predisposed.
Harbinger. Not only does the word itself shed meaning and sense with repetition, it causes the very idea of meaning, and of sense, and of communication, to fall by the wayside. There is no entrance to the thing at all. Har. The hell is har? Bin at least is a word, as in dustbin. Is this therefore a bin for har? But then: See question number one. And, finally, ger, with a soft g; jer, as pronounced. And that is?
To recap. Har — meaningless, jer, meaningless, with only the middle syllable, only bin, being the actual name of an actual thing. Is there another such compound, made up purely of a couple of odd sounds clamped round an ordinary-as-dirt noun?
Harbinger. Clearly, the bastard needs to be looked up. Perhaps its derivation, perhaps its etymology, will help explain how such an appalling word comes to be in the language.
One forty five. Back from the dictionary widget on my handheld. The heart of the problem is now very clear. Goddamned harbinger — a herald, a messenger, someone who goes on ahead to announce the arrival of another later on — comes from the Middle English (think Chaucer) herbergere, which came from the Anglo-French host, from herbergere, camp, lodgings, which was of Germanic origins and akin to Old High German heriberga, from the 14th Century.
Yeah, sure. After six centuries, that lot of throat-clearing (heriberga, herbegere) becomes the equally impenetrable harbinger. It really is meaningless, at least to the modern mind (with which I personally am equipped) because it contains nothing that has continued to signify into our time. The other words all survive. Herald survives (Hark, the herald angels sing; Herald Square, after the old newspaper, herald being a damn fine name for a newspaper), messenger is an everyday word; sign, omen, foreshadowing, all raise no eyebrows. But, goddamn — harbinger. It ought to mean a resident of the Chinese city of Harbin. Or one who overindulges in har. Goes, in other words, on a har binge, taking far more of it than he ought to, and the hell with the consequences.
Shit. Hours of trickling left. That whole harbinger business only took thirty minutes.
Look out the big window giving on a classic midtown view: Tenement rooftops below me (I am on the sixth floor), with an ugly red brick building taking up the whole of the leftmost pane of the window, from sill to jam. Then, further back, white brick high-rises of various heights. And finally, newest of them all, a not entirely finished giant of must be forty, forty-five stories, largely of glass, with bands of white metal strapping the windows together, and something like a great quonset hut on the roof. This arrogant upstart of a building is almost certainly an absurdly expensive collection of apartments for rent, or sale. It does not seem occupied yet; no shades or curtains or lamps visible anywhere through the dark gray glass. Slow, thorough study of this view takes ten minutes.
Pick up the Times again, settle into microscopic review of front page. Six columns of good stuff and, below the fold, nice color photo of Gulf oil spill, deserving much better than just a quick glance, so study the picture most carefully, appreciating the sad seriousness of the situation but also the incongruous beauty of the colors, the brown lacework of the oil on the blue water background, looking straight down from high above, with a tiny-seeming lozenge-shaped ship in the lower left corner, dragging something through the spill to contain it.
But for the ship giving away the fact that this actually is a photo, it might be an abstract canvas, a dark version of Monet’s Water Lillies maybe, or a Pollock action painting of sprocket-shaped splotches splattered by a big brush on a blue background. In a museum, one would sit down on a bench in front of such a composition and give it a good long time to sink in. Yes, a picture very much calling for one’s full attention, with no restless rush about it.
Now a real distraction. I am beeping. Well, one of my pumps is beeping. So I get to summon a nurse by pushing the appropriate button on the telephone. Imagined maybe that light would go on at nurse’s station, but what happens in fact is that I can actually hear the nurse, both through the phone and with my other ear. She is that nearby.
Nurse’s station, she says, in both my ears.
Uh, hi, says me. One of my machines has been beeping for a while now. I guess maybe someone ought to come and have a look?
Okay, she says. I’ll be right over.
And she is. Instantly. Must have been a couple yards away. She presses a button. The beeping stops. She leaves.
Two twenty five.
View out window has not changed one iota, which ain’t in the least surprising given that the view consists entirely of buildings, and buildings don’t move, except in an earthquake, of which there hasn’t been one, though that would be a welcome distraction.
I wake up to think, well, at least I have slept away most of the time that was left, feel as if I must have been out for hours.
My lying bastard of a watch says it is three o’clock.
Out in the world, even in Cancerland, time really does fly, except when it ought to. Then it sighs, and faints, and all but stops.