Returning to Standard Time

Time and Tidal Basin Wait for No Man


Two days after Christmas, I took Amtrak from Virginia to New York. The train stops at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station to change engines; in this direction the switch is from diesel to electric. All my life, D.C. was a presence, only around 20 miles away, and it was just a fact of life. I was proud of it, even after Nixon. In the 13 years I’ve lived in New York, I have always passed the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, and all the buildings in between, with such a deep heart and appreciation for the fact of democracy emerging and being sustained throughout all the genocides and chaos, through the transitions, the changes, the figuring it out. When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008, I had a feeling that something truly astonishing had happened: Americans had finally grown the fuck up.

Needless to say, I was more profoundly wrong than I knew. Eight years of representatives’ racist behaviors, countless black deaths, deliberate obstruction, loathesome primaries, and yet another questionable election day later, the ascension of President-elect Donald Trump effectively ends American democracy as we have known it (which is not a histrionic thing to say, given his promises to turn the nation to oligarchy, co-ruling with Putin, apparently). What Trump’s election has meant is that sitting in that train in D.C., even passing through and past the monuments, was for the first time an embarrassment to me, sickening even. I wanted away from that awful place. I’ve never felt like that before. Americans are terrible people. That’s how I felt.


So what is it that has made Americans become even more terrible than I thought possible? I realized it’s because we have no standards anymore. We have bars, of course: An impossibly high one for liberals, and another set at “abyss” for conservatives. But what we no longer have is something my friend Tom recalls as “protocol.” Trump rolled all that over into a ditch from his first tweet after the election: bashing his opponent, the Electoral College, the citizens who voted for him, and the current president. Trump takes no prisoners, makes no distinctions between the people he will be sworn to serve and the oligarchs to whom he owes money. From his model, too, we have also eschewed the practice of basic etiquette. Politeness, by the way, is not insincerity; it’s discipline. And by the way, what the Republicans call “political correctness” is what we used to call “human decency.”

So what happened?

Next Station Stop

Back on the train: From Virginia into Union Station, I’d had both train seats to myself, but I knew it was about to fill up. Soon a bag was slung into the aisle seat beside me, and a slender, older white bald man in casual clothes, glasses, with two small backpacks, began arranging himself. A sideways glance revealed a rather large, clear droplet hanging from the tip of his nose. I instantly thought of Remains of the Day, where Anthony Hopkins’s butler father narrowly misses dropping such a drop into his master’s teacup. One should feel foolish to be grossed out by such a simple human thing, but I admit that I was. Then the man bent over to his backpack on the floor, gray with various zippers and compartments, and fiddled around for such a long time, slowly, clumsily, that I wondered if he were drunk. When he emerged with this phone, I glanced sideways again to see that the droplet still clung. I gripped by book, my brother Mike’s gift of Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, and focused on “Italians.” (My other book was from my mom, Lynne: Trump Revealed, by journalists from the Washington Post, but I felt I’d, um, save that one for not-in-public reading, and with a scotch.) Mercifully, I caught a peripheral view of him using a tissue to wipe his nose, and then I took advantage of this moment to get up to use the restroom. It took him some time to get up, but he seemed very nice, if slightly incoherent. When I returned, there he was, bent over again, rifling through what looked like a near-empty pack, for what went on to be minutes. An older black lady, sitting across the aisle by herself, politely tapped the empty seat, for me to sit, and I said, “You’re a doll,” but I needed all my stuff. Finally, I tapped him on the shoulder, and he got up, and I went ahead and resumed my seat to read my book.

Now you might be wondering why I’m taking you through all this minutia. Before I tell you, you might know that this stranger then, without asking, but sort of apologizing, reached across me to plug in his phone, which took a long time, and I offered to change seats with him twice as he did this, but he insisted the cord would reach fine, which wasn’t my concern exactly. Then he proceeded to talk into his phone, using the microphone feature, to contact first the friend he was visiting; then a relative (wife? child?) to say he was on the train; and third was something to do with an appointment. Then he began to read his own book, which he had to rifle around for, of course. When his phone rang, he answered it, and spoke to what turned out to be a neurologist. In clear but rather careful speech he spoke to me directly for the first time, saying, “That was my neurologist. I must be driving you crazy, but I have Parkinson’s disease, and I needed to set up my next appointment.”

I knew something was wrong, but etiquette and discipline have taught me that one simply puts up with the quirks of others, for we have our own. (For instance, I ruffled one of those awful plastic bags as I ate a ham sandwich and peeled Clementines—and who knows what he had to hear and smell that was annoying to him.) Grown-ups take the long view. One hopes the annoying party might have the kindness to explain said quirks, and this man did. And his explanation was devastating, and humbling. Considering everything—poor motor skills, weakness, and at times unclear speech—his independent trip was a marvel to me.

He asked me about my book, and we began talking about music. He loved Dylan, and hates Trump, which was a relief, so I asked if he’d heard Patti Smith singing at the Nobel ceremony, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” He had not, so I told him to watch it when he got a chance. He used the microphone (what a great thing) to look it up. I saw that under Patti Smith’s name was also the book, Just Kids, her memoir of her early days in New York City ca. 1970, and of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. He had not read it, so he made a note of it. He missed a lot of the 1970s counter-culture stuff, he explained, because he was in, and training for, the Olympics.

Now you see how great it is be polite, and patient, and kind to strangers? In our mutual tolerance of each other’s quirks, we fell into a fabulous conversation. It turns out he was in the 1976 and 1980 Olympics (the latter boycotted “by that peanut farmer”), track and field. I asked, “Did you know Benita Fitzgerald?” “Oh, yeah! She’s great!” “She went to my high school, and her father was my guidance counselor. He just died a few years back—the dearest man.” “What do you know,” he said. So I asked, “Who are you?” And he had me Google “February 6, 1978, Sports Illustrated.” And there he was, on the cover:

Dick Beurkle on his big day; February 6, 1978.

“I had just gotten the world record in the mile,” he explained. WOW. “How long did you hold it?” I asked. A year, he said. And I don’t know what made me ask this, but given that after Muhammad Ali’s death it finally came out that his Parkinson’s was indeed related to his boxing days (it had previously been denied, I assume to prevent boxers from getting scared out of making money for white guys), I did ask, “Do you think your Parkinson’s is related to your being an athlete?”

He didn’t hesitate to answer. “It’s funny you ask that,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who are runners, guys a lot better than I was, all over the world. They all have Parkinson’s.” This revelation led to him telling about his therapies, including for speech. His really was quite clear, but he had to work hard on it. It’s understandable that he wants his grandchildren to become doctors rather than athletes. After all, what is most important? It’s hard, deciding on our standards, because we all have dreams, too.

Just Kids

Somehow we wound our talk back around to Patti Smith. My traveling companion Googled images for Just Kids, and said of the cover photo, “Are those her parents?” And I said, “No, that’s Patti and Robert,” and he said, “No way,” and then we saw the image of Patti Smith that was taken by Robert Mapplethorpe for the cover of Horses, her debut album. What extraordinary people they became.

Just Kids

Here, two confessions to you, not quite explained to my new friend Dick Buerkle (say Berk-lee) back there on the train: First, when I first saw the album cover of Patti Smith’s Horses around 1982 in Books, Strings, and Things in Blacksburg, VA (there not being any record stores where I grew up), I was fascinated by and terrified of her androgyny, just as I was of David Bowie, and also afraid of the rawness and inventiveness of the music. Second, when I read Just Kids, I found the story fascinating and the writing to be that of an earnest adolescent who hasn’t mastered the language, despite the fact that the book had won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. In both cases, coming from a deeply literary background and from a musical base that included composers like Gershwin and Kern, I wondered what had happened to standards. It’s like any old noise, or any stringing of words, or any way of dressing has nothing to measure up to—as if all of it were “okay” and anyone could horn in, and there were no protocols anymore. I find a lot of new art unnerving. But really, whose problem is that? Maybe it is Miss O’ who needs to learn something.

And here I want to point out that I see a profound difference between an artist breaking with protocol or standards in ART for the fuck of it, and a political leader breaking with protocol or standards in GOVERNANCE for the fuck of it. The artist is trying to discover herself, and that risk is appropriate, since no one else suffers, and it might be a flash in the pan. The political leader who does this is risking a nation’s welfare for generations to come. If you don’t understand that difference—and it took me a long time to appreciate artists properly, as well as leaders—or if you think Trump is “just another leader” and are okay with that, I will tell you this: I am going to break with etiquette and tell you I think you are a despicable human being. You need to grow the fuck up. Get some goddamned standards.


To get a world record in the mile, officials time the runners. That is, the humans participating and the humans running have to believe in time as a concept, agree to subject themselves to Kipling’s “unforgiving minute,” and abide by the time called. No one says, as Trump might, “Yeah, well I feel like I have the world record, so I do.” Seeing that Sports Illustrated cover up there caused me to think: In the post-truth world, will there be such a thing as world records, or winning times, or winners of games, ever again? People used to trust in physics, science, and fact-based news. Maybe sports is our last holdout for truth.  I do think Reality TV made a fake news world, and Trump led the charge. Now he’s the president, the man who doesn’t want anyone to know the real reality behind-the-scenes of his taxes, his show, his administration. C’mon, people: Trump’s about to run the American mile, and not in our shoes. Who’s measuring him? By what standards?

As I said, meeting Dick Buerkle reminded me of Muhammad Ali’s death from complications due to Parkinson’s, and also of all those NFL players who are dying from their chosen sport—nearly all because they weren’t fully aware of the risks they were taking. Maybe they would have done it anyway, their sports, and maybe they’d say it was worth the risk, but they will never know. It’s why we need standards, and need constant updates and cross checks. Standards save lives.

Just as knowledge of basic etiquette makes you comfortable anywhere,  so too do standards and protocols matter in every single facet of life, in every business, in every job, in every culture. Fact-based knowledge matters. Developing good standards based on knowledge, in order to protect the people and serve our general welfare, is something all of us adult humans need to care about, follow, review, and teach to the young. By contrast, we rely on artists to expand and test those society standards, and let’s face it: most of us probably know great art when we encounter it, even if we don’t understand it, or realize we know it. My first tip-off is my emotional response: almost always, it is extreme discomfort. Bruce Springsteen, for example, scared the shit out of me when I first heard “Adam Raised a Cain.” So I listened again. And again. I fell in love with that man. Go me.

So as I’m reading about artists’ lives, I’m reminded that the year 2016 brought us all too many deaths. It became almost farcical, there are the end, but at least Betty White is still with us. As is Patti Smith, who turned 70. And 2016 brought too many reprehensible and potentially fatal political and social upheavals to count. Donald Trump for four years, if not for life, tops the list. Whatever our different tastes and ideas, if we are sentient, we collectively felt these agonies, didn’t we? We are still in this together, right? (Not if the ebullient posts of conservatives are any measure. At least I have my friends.)

The deaths of David Bowie and Prince, former outliers, were universally mourned (except by humans living under cultural rocks), and Bob Dylan’s award of the Nobel Prize for Literature was universally hailed (I mean, in all the mags and op-eds I read)—as was Patti Smith’s singing for that most esteemed of human ceremonies. It’s funny that Dylan and Prince and Bowie and Smith, these rebels, these terrors, are now considered the singers of standards, really. They are mainstream. And they should be. Standards need to be tested, and they need to force us to make room for the new, sure: But acceptance comes, based on quality, and on service, and on real accomplishment and contribution to the culture. They grow us, these rebels in art. And they grow, too, personally; and into the stuff of legend for us. It’s awesome.

As we talked about music, I told Dick a story from my friend Cathy, a colleague and neighbor, who grew up in New York, and who once went with a friend to see punk rocker Patti Smith at the old CBGB club downtown, back before she was big a name. The two sat on an aisle, and Cathy’s friend put her feet up on the seat in front of her just as rebel artist Patti Smith made her entrance through the audience. Patti leaned down to Cathy’s friend and snarled, “Put your feet down.”

Dick asked me, “Was she serious?” Dead serious, I said. “I like her even more now,” Dick said, and I agreed. Patti Smith had standards.

Looking at the cover of Horses, there in miniature on Dick’s phone, I had to admit that I wished I could have been that cool. I always wanted to be that cool. “You’re pretty cool,” Dick said. Yeah, but not Patti-Smith-on-the-cover-of-Horses cool.


I mean, I have standards.

We all should. Let’s work on that.

See you in the Resistance.

In Memoriam: Carrie Fisher. Reminding you–and I have no idea who took this photo–that no one loves Stormtroopers. No one roots for Stormtroopers. Ever.











Author: Miss O'

Miss O' is the pen and stage name of writer and performer and spinster Lisa O'Hara. Miss O' was an American high school English and drama teacher for 15 years, and she appreciates her freedom to leave it behind for a new life in Queens, NY. Her eBook, Easier to Live Here: Miss O' in New York City, is still available, after ten years, on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook. Her stage show, The Miss O' Show Teacher's Edition: Training Pants, will someday arrive in small works-in-progress venues to be announced, maybe; and in the meantime the work continues.

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