Stopping Time

April 30, 2008

Suzame, Atticus, and I wait for our food in the dinner-crowd din at Ken’s Artisan Pizza on SE 28th. I gaze out the window. People awash in early evening light pass on the sidewalk.

A young man comes into view. Hip-looking in that Portland style that anyone on the eastside under 30 wears like skin. Short-brimmed black cap, scraggly beard, messenger bag, and headphones — as in headphones so big they’d look nerdy on me but make him retro cool.

Then I see it. His yo-yo, dipping and rocking, then circling in a wide arc, the finale to a five-second show. All this while he walks, listening to who knows what on those headphones. And he was gone.

Seeing him immediately sends me back, not into my brief and unremarkable yo-yo phase in elementary school, but rather into the far richer world of a book. The story comes alive in my head, and I live there until Suzame asks why I’m staring blankly out the window.

At home I pull from the shelf Frank Conroy‘s memoir Stop-Time. Of course it’s about much more than the most dazzling yo-yo scene ever put to words. Anyone who wants to understand what life looks like to a boy is hereby commanded to read Conroy’s signature work. It’s relevance endures, though Stop-time was first published 43 years ago. Conroy died in 2005 at 69. He headed the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop for 18 years.

Consider this passage in which the main character muses about how discovering the yo-yo changes his perception. It comes just before a yo-yo competition that he’s entered:

I practiced the yo-yo because it pleased me to do so, without the slightest application of will power. It wasn’t ambition that drove me, but the nature of yo-yoing. The yo-yo represented my first organized attempt to control the outside world. It fascinated me because I could see my progress in clearly defined stages, and because the intimacy of it, the almost spooky closeness I began to feel with the instrument in my hand, seemed to ensure that nothing irrelevant would interfere. I was, in the language of jazz, “up tight” with my yo-yo, and finally free, in one small area at least, of the paralyzing sloppiness of life in general.

I revisit another passage I’ve read many times. The narrator abruptly jumps far ahead into adulthood and describes waking during the night, his wife asleep at his side:

My faith in the firmness of time slips away gradually. I begin to believe that chronological time is an illusion and that some other principle organizes existence. My memories flash like clips of film from unrelated movies. I wonder, suddenly, if I am alive. I know I’m not dead, but am I alive? I look into the memories for reassurance, searching for signs of life. I find someone moving. Is it me? My chest tightens.

All of which makes me wonder what world the yo-yoing hipster dude occupies, enveloped in what musical beat as he works his string magic, oblivious on this evening to his audience of one.

Comments on this entry are closed.