TAPE MEASURE: On the distance between here and there
From the new book Hammer Head (Norton)
From the sidewalk on Memorial Drive where the Mass Ave Bridge begins on the Cambridge side of the Charles River, the view across extends a little less than half a mile. To the south, the Boston skyline rises above Storrow Drive. Closer to the water, and lower to the ground, brick predominates; glass and steel rise behind. To the west, moving upstream against the current, the Citgo sign lights up over Kenmore Square, and if it’s a home game during Red Sox season, the floodlights over Fenway make it daytime in the park. The river bends and snakes its way out of the city, through twenty-three towns, sidewalks and river paths giving way to shoreline with pine and maples. Great blue herons stand in shallows on stalky legs and box turtles with warm shells sun themselves on rocks and logs. For eighty miles, the river wends through eastern Massachusetts from its start at Echo Lake in a town called Hopkinton. To the east of the Mass Ave Bridge, back near the city, sailboats dip and swerve. Oars on the eightperson sculls thunk in the oarlocks as crew teams run their practice and glide underneath the bridge. The Red Line train crosses over the Longfellow Bridge about a mile downstream. Beyond, the new Zakim Bridge rises above the river, suspended by white strands that look like the skeletons of wings. The river meets the harbor, freshwater merges with salt, and the Charles River is altered and absorbed into the Atlantic.
For seven years, I crossed the bridge on foot, once in the morning, sun at my left shoulder, and once in the evening, when sunsets sometimes blushed the sky. It was part of the three-mile path I made from my apartment in Cambridge to the newspaper offices where I worked in Boston. On the way home, depending on weather and time of year and if it was a deadline day, bands of pink spread across the sky upstream, or else it was cold and city dark, and lights became the thing, streetlamps, headlights, taillights like embers, all blinking and sparkling up the road ahead. The river glittered with Cambridge above it, squatter than Boston, lower to the ground. Sometimes, the moon. Sometimes, a few stars. The wind blew stronger on the bridge. Tourists handed me their cameras and asked me to take photographs with the river and the skyline. I dodged joggers and cyclists on the sidewalk afraid of the bike lane. I was usually alone when I walked the bridge, occasionally drunk, a few times crying, one time kissed by someone I didn’t like too much. The walk across the river was a ferrying for my brain—toward a desk and noise and tip-tapping of keys, clicking and interviews and story ideas, and away from my desk in the evenings, toward quiet and home, toward a bar, toward not having to talk or think or be clever or click. Oh I am fond of that bridge, the whole stretch of it. It’s the longest one to span the Charles at 2,164.8 feet. That’s 659.82 meters, or 364.4 smoots.
Oliver Smoot was the shortest pledge of MIT’s Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity in 1958. Late one night that year, he was tipped head over heels, over and over, across the length of the bridge, Boston to Cambridge, by his fraternity brothers. They made an official tally of 364.4 smoots, plus or minus one ear. Ever since that fabled measurement, twice each year the boys of Lambda Chi Alpha have repainted the markers on the sidewalk across the bridge that delineate every ten smoots. (An exception has been made for smoot-mark sixty-nine, which as of this year, had the addition of “heaven” painted underneath.) When the bridge was reconstructed in the 1980s, the sidewalk slabs were made in smoot-lengths, as opposed to the six-foot standard. Oliver Smoot’s contribution to measurement continued well after his fraternity days. A plaque at the base of the bridge commemorates the 50th anniversary of the smoot, and notes that Ollie went on to head both the American National Standards Institute and the International Organization for Standardization.
I trotted across the bridge, face reddened by wind in winter, sweat soaking the back of my shirt in summer, and I went to my desk at a newspaper where I’d landed a job out of college. First I did listings, which meant inputting the city’s every concert, contra dance, art exhibit, comedy show, poetry slam, and movie time into a massive database week-in, week-out. I wrote about cheap Salvadoran restaurants, interviewed David Copperfield, profiled an art-porn collective, reviewed documentary films, covered a conference on virginity, and wrote about books and authors and the literary scene in Boston. Eventually I got bumped up to managing editor of the website, which meant I was tasked with making sure every story showed up in the right place at the right time. It meant a lot of clicking.
For a long time, I loved it. I loved the rhythm of the thing, the peaks and lulls, the energy of a room of people, mostly men, on deadline. All the furious typing, all the opinions and shit-talk, listening to writers on the phone with sources, the concentration and filing and release—the newsroom possessed a charge. And I was proud to be part of it. What good fortune, to be able to go to a place every day and be surrounded by all these smart maniacs telling stories, all working to produce this thing that had a history, that was part of the fabric of the city, that was committed to long-form, investigative, issue-based journalism and had the strongest set of arts critics in Boston.
What a set of weirdos sat at these desks with me, what a collection of brains. There was the sharp-witted, chain-smoker with untucked shirts and rogue charm who had worked moving houses before becoming a journalist. There was the practitioner of make-the-world-better journalism and expose-injustice journalism, who sat at her desk and worked with the focus and fire of someone possessed until you got her out to the bar, where she’d talk about how she’d followed the Grateful Dead. The managing editor was a first-rate grump, a big-hearted cynic who had helped start the paper, and still believed in its power and necessity. The arts editor with the encyclopedic memory threw cursing fits, slamming books on the floor of his cube, his standards unmeetably high. And the features writer, from hard-knocks Brockton, wrote a weekly column about the city’s strangest characters, which struck me as maybe the coolest job in the world. In my head, she towered tall above me; I saw her not long ago, and realizing that she and I were the same height came as an immense shock and had me questioning, for a moment, if perhaps she’d contracted some shrinking disease. Such is how these people loomed.
I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. Every time I got to answer the question what do you do?, I felt proud to answer. This was exactly what I wanted. Until it wasn’t.
Talk of readers turned to talk of users. Print was sputtering, and it was the responsibility of the web operation to inject “youth” and “relevance” into the operation to keep advertising dollars coming in, and keep the paper in business. It’s a familiar story now.
The clicking started to get me down. There is a dullness in all forms of work, a “violence—to the spirit as well as to the body,” as Studs Terkel put it in Working. There are repeated tasks and empty time and moments you wish you were swimming. These are unavoidable, even in jobs we love and feel proud to have; these are natural, even if you’ve found your calling. It’s when those meaningless moments pile and mount, the meaningless moments that chew at your soul, that creep into the crevices of your brain and holler at you until ignoring them is not an option. Deadening moments that lead to the hard questions, the ones that swirl, in the broadest sense, around time and dying.
After years in which most of my waking hours were spent in front of a computer screen clicking buttons, I realized I’d become a lump in a chair, present only in the physical fact of my flesh at the desk, soul staling like a Saltine. It got worse by the day, like a shirt that had once felt so comfortable, so flattering and familiar, but had started to tighten, constrict at the neck, pull across the shoulders. The grooves of my brain seemed to be getting smoothed out, a slow dulling, gradual and slothing. It was harder and harder to find pleasure in the atmosphere or meaning in the endeavor. The people I liked most were starting to move on to other jobs at other places.
The screen exerts an oppressive power, and I am as seduced as anyone by the clips and pics, the news and noise of the Internet. I would rather e-mail than talk on the phone. I have pals I know only online and am grateful for those connections. But there is no other place I can think of where one can consume so much and absorb so little. The Internet has no equal in that regard. I am leery of its siren song, the way it beckons, and of my own inability to ignore its call. It’s a rabbit-hole exit, a tumbling in space with Wonderland ever always one click away.
My brain went bad. Hangovers hounded me three out of five workdays a week. Mouse in my limp, damp hand, my head raw and frayed, I spent months thinking, I’ve got to get out of here. But I had a familiar routine to cling to, and health insurance, and despite it all, I felt an allegiance to the institution. And so I stayed, kept scrolling, kept clicking. Plus, what would I do next? What could I do? Inertia and fear and laziness, the three-headed dog that keeps us from leaving situations that have passed their expiration date, growled around me for months, the way Cerberus allowed souls to enter the realm of the dead, but allowed none of them to leave.
The tipping point came in the form of an online list. As a sardonic response to Maxim’s list of sexy women, we published a list of the 100 Unsexiest Men. A place on the list was granted not for physical repugnancy, but for poor character, bad deeds, and general unpopularity. Scandalous politicians, misogynist athletes, racist pundits, public-figure villains of all kinds. The first time around, the list was so popular it crashed the site, and thus became a must-repeat feature. Devising and executing it the first time was stupid fun—nothing to be proud of, but no big deal. When the third annual list rolled around, I found myself dispirited. More than that: sitting at my desk making sure the number on the list matched the number on the blurb about the man, I felt desperate. It was more than stupid and my brain hollered: You will die and this is an empty way to spend the days.
Slumped at my computer during those unsexiest days, all I could think about was leaving. I craved something away from the screen, away from the echo chamber of the Internet. I wanted something that had a little more to do with reality. But what did that mean? Our lives online are as bound in reality as making pancakes, driving to the dump, spilling a glass of wine. At my desk, though, I felt far away from an anchor, a grounding agent, satisfaction. In a vague way, I wanted to put my brain where my hands were. These impulses were question marks, shadow urges, pipe dreams. I wanted to be an Olympic speed skater, too, but that wasn’t about to happen.
I had worked at the paper for nearly the whole of my twenties. Closing in on thirty, it wasn’t just disenchantment with my web job. My brain stirred with change, with the idea of a wholesale altering of life as I’d been living it. I spent months in this mode, fed up, deeply bored, trying to corral enough courage to leap.
On my way to work on a bright and mild September morning, I crossed the Mass Ave B ridge. The smoot marks, paint faded, blurred below my feet, counting out the distance. I looked at the river as I rehearsed what I would say to my boss that day. I reached the Boston side of the river with resolve but mostly fear and some hands-in-the-air hope. When I got to the office, I quit.
It wasn’t just the job that ended. I moved out of my apartment, broke up with a boyfriend, and left the city for a little while. Sledgehammer, slam, dust, done.
My days were blank, every day an emptiness. The fear—that I’d never find work again, that I’d made a very bad decision, that I’d derailed myself with no chance of finding another train—morphed into regret, that sick feeling of knowing that time only moves one way with no chance to change what’s been done. Small efforts and loose routines were weak antidotes. One teary morning in early spring, doing my daily click around the Craigslist jobs section, reviewing, once again, the same few posts in the Writing/Editing and Art/Media/Design sections, I clicked on the Etc. category. Amid postings looking for dog walkers, surrogate mothers (up to $40k; tempting), and catheter users ($25 for your opinion; less so), I came across a line of text that registered itself in my chest with a quick extra thump of my heart.
Carpenter’s Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply.
This simple post seemed to glow, holding in it the promise of exactly what I’d been craving. My fingers fluttered above the keyboard, ready to write the note that would convince this person that I was the right woman for the job.
I tried to explain my experience. None. None at all. I tried to think what might qualify me. I didn’t know the difference between a Phillips and a flathead screwdriver. Should I admit that? No, don’t admit that. I explained that my professional background had more to do with putting together sentences than working with hammers and nails and wood, but that I was curious and hardworking, and that I longed to work with my hands. “What I lack in experience,” I wrote to this anonymous poster, “I would definitely make up for in curiosity and enthusiasm.”
I pressed SEND and the initial excitement and blast of optimism was extinguished by a wave of despondency and pessimism. What a joke, I scolded myself. What a ridiculous long shot. You don’t get carpentry jobs based on claims of curiosity and capacity for hard work, I admonished myself. Putting together sentences? I sounded like an asshole. I imagined the person reading my email and laughing—oh, perfect, curious is exactly the quality I need to help build a safe set of stairs—and then discarding my note to continue the search for someone who actually knew something. I regretted how I’d approached the opportunity, and tried to put the whole missed chance out of my head.
That same morning, I applied for a fiction-editor position at an online literary operation (unpaid), and a gig writing product descriptions of adult novelties ($20 per description, seven descriptions per week). The adult novelty place got right back to me and asked if I’d please choose one product from the list they provided and write a sample description, no more than a paragraph, demonstrating an understanding of keywords.
I scrolled through the options. Smartballs silicone kegel balls. The Liberator ramp. Bound To Please nipple clamps. The Luxe Adonis G Spot and Clit Vibe. I heard the words of my high-school Latin teacher: when your eyes are open, you’ll see classical references everywhere. Caveat emptor. So I put my Classics degree to work. Adonis, his beauty unsurpassed, born out of the trunk of the Myrrha tree, was so lovely that Venus herself, goddess of love, couldn’t resist him. So began my blurb. I did not mention that lovely Adonis was the offspring of an incestuous pair, that his mother was also his sister, that his father was his grandfather. I did make mention of plunging in, the way the wild boar plunges his tusk into Adonis’s groin, killing him, until Venus who loved him, changes him into a flower that blooms deep blood-red, “the very color of pomegranates when that fruit is ripe and hides sweet seeds beneath its pliant rind,” as Ovid tells it in his Metamorphoses. Seeds and pliant rinds, plunging tusks and a beauty that bewitches the goddess of love. The petals fall fast off the flower that Adonis is transformed into, unlike the great and lasting bloom that the G Spot and Clit Vibe brings.
I sent that off, closed my computer, and took a walk in the rain.
Four days after applying for the carpentry job, four days after sweeping the thought of it out of my head, I got an e-mail back from an anonymous Craigslistgenerated number. It was a woman named Mary writing to say that she was contacting forty of us who’d applied for the job, out of more than three hundred responses she’d gotten in the first eighteen hours of posting her ad. (“Sign of the times,” she wrote.) This was hopeful. I’d made the short list. I let that settle for a moment before I realized that forty people was still a lot of people, and I still only had enthusiasm and a work ethic as quasi-qualifications. I kept reading.
She explained a bit more about herself, about the job, and what she was looking for, straightforward as a two-by-four to the side of the head. “I’m a 43-year-old married lesbian with a 10-year-old daughter,” she wrote. She’d worked for herself for a few years and before that had worked for another contractor. “I like to think of myself as a journeyman-level carpenter and a slightly better tiler.” I didn’t know what this meant, but I liked the sound of journeyman. It brought to mind a wandering carpenter, tools slung over her shoulder, traveling place to place, building and fixing, humming away in worn-in workpants, a smile on her face.
It got better. She described the traits she was looking for: “Common sense is the most important thing. Next is lugging crap, you must be able to!” I gripped my left bicep and felt the muscle swell as I flexed. I can lug crap, I thought. I can absolutely lug crap. I thought of moving couches and tables out of various apartments, hauling boxes and boxes of books up and down flights of stairs. “Tools, supplies, whatever,” she wrote of what we’d lug. And common sense: sure, my judgment was sound enough in practical matters. I’m not the most practical-minded, but I’m a good parallel parker, I can follow a recipe, sometimes I know what I’m going to wear the day before I wear it. Skills used will vary from job to job, she explained, and jobs range from a day to several months, usually averaging about two weeks. And then came a list of the sorts of work that the jobs entailed in a language mostly unfamiliar. “Go in patch walls and paint.” (Clear enough, I could paint, but who knew what patching meant?) “Put in a wood or tile floor. Add trim.” (Sounded doable.) “Larger jobs: kitchen and bathroom renovations, structural work.” (This sounded serious and intimidating.) “Demo, framing, insulating, fire stopping, boarding, mudding, installing windows, finish trim work, install cabs, porch rebuilds. Pretty much everything except additions and roofs.” What did these words mean? Demo? I thought first of demonstrations. Framing? Framing pictures, I imagined, and that’d be cool to learn. Boarding? I pictured boarding houses and torture techniques, and figured it was neither. Mudding. Mudding? All of it sounded mysterious and appealing.
She asked that we explain a little more about ourselves and why we wanted the job. In my response, I tried to be as direct and honest as she’d been. I’m thirty years old, I wrote. I spent the past bunch of years working at a newspaper. In terms of carpentry, I wrote: “I’ll be honest: I don’t have much experience. That said, I’m strong (lugging crap is no problem at all).” I claimed a good sensible head on my shoulders and emphasized again how curious I was to learn this stuff. I wrote about the satisfaction of putting together a good sentence, but that something more immediate, more physical, more practical and tangible appealed to me, and had for some time.
“This is work I want to learn and do,” I wrote. “You would have to teach me, but I would learn fast and don’t mind doing hard work. I can start immediately.”
How acute is your internal clock? If someone were to ask you to mark a minute without counting out the second ticks, how close would you come? And if someone asked you to mark three and seven-sixteenths inches without a rule, how close would you be? A quarter inch off? Three-quarters? How well does your brain know space?
The earliest systems of measurement were based on the body. A cubit was the distance from the crook of the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. A half-cubit, or a span, equaled the spread between thumb and pinky tip. What we now call an inch was the width of a man’s thumb, or the distance from the tip of the forefinger to the first knuckle. A foot: the foot. In ancient Egypt, monuments were built based on the Sacred Cubit, the standard cubit plus an extra span. Two strides equaled a pace, or five feet in the Roman standard. A thousand paces made a mile. The line between King Henry I’s thumb and nose measured a yard. Two yards made a fathom, or the distance of both arms outstretched. In the thirteenth century, King Edward I’s Iron Ulna, named after the long bone in the forearm, set the measure for the standard yardstick. A foot was a third of the yard, and an inch was one thirty-sixth of it. Edward I’s flamboyant son Edward II decreed it otherwise in 1324. Three round, dry barleycorns made an inch in his book. But nature is fickle, and the size of seeds, like fingers and feet, can’t be counted on. (What power kings wielded, when the length of their bones—or fondness for barleycorns—could become the basis of standard measure.)
Forearms and pace lengths in the west, it was otherwise in ancient India, though the scale of measure there still found its distances in the natural world. A yojana measured the distance an oxcart could cover in one day. A length, we can suppose, that depended on how energetic your ox felt, how arthritic its joints were, how muddy the road it trod upon was, or even how greased were the wheels of the cart. A krosa measured the distance at which the lowing of a cow could be heard, a distance that depends on which way the wind blows. A finger was divided into barleycorns, barleycorns into lice, lice into nits, nits into cow’s hair, into sheep’s hair, into rabbit fuzz, down, down, to the grain of dust kicked up by a chariot that cannot be divided. And though a cow’s low isn’t fixed, a distance emerges in our minds, inexact but imaginable—that melancholy bellow over pastures, gentle, warm-eyed beasts over there on the hill.
Things changed in Napoleonic France when the meter was adopted. It turned away from the human skeleton to a different sort of scale. A meter measured one ten-millionth of the distance between the equator and the North Pole following a straight line through Paris. This proves a trickier distance to contend with. What does one ten-millionth of that distance look like? I see ice floes and rain forests, a stick that shrinks to that tiny fraction of that big distance. I see a globe on a shelf and a small hand spinning it around.
It’s changed again since then. No longer a fraction of the earth’s surface, the meter is the length of the path traveled by light in a vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,588 of a second. I can’t conjure a rain forest, or spread my fingers out in front of my face to gauge a span, or look at my forearm to know a cubit, or hear the sound of that cow in the distance, or tip Oliver Smoot end over end. My mind can’t make sense of light and vacuums and that sliver span of time. A day’s worth of oxcart travel is one thing. For my feeble brain, light speed and second fragments are impossible to conceive.
In the thirteenth century, the word journey meant the distance traveled in one day, and later came to mean a day’s work. The base of the word is jour, the French word for day. A journeyman is someone at a stage in between apprentice and master, someone competent to do a day’s work. Distance traveled, work done, this was something I could comprehend.