Many Alarm Clocks: A Workaholic Reflects on Deadlines, Balance and the Afterlife

The founder and editor of “The Sun,” Sy Safransky, ruminates on love and loss, faith and doubt, writing and not writing.

Papers

“I’d pay my respects to the man who worked right up until the end, trying to save himself, or the world, even after he’d realized he couldn’t save either.”

Photo by Fotolia/lenetsnikolai

Content Tools

In 1974 Sy Safransky borrowed fifty dollars to start The Sun. As the magazine has grown, he’s become a busy editor and publisher, but he still gets up before sunrise to write in his journal, occasionally publishing excerpts. Many Alarm Clocks offers a selection of those excerpts from the last fifteen years: a lyrical, highly personal, often self-deprecating series of ruminations. Safransky writes about loving his wife and about eating too much and about not meditating enough and about getting older every day no matter how many vitamins he takes. Sometimes he talks to the dead. Sometimes he argues with God. He readily admits there’s a lot he’ll never understand, but he’s determined to honor this brief, mysterious existence by being awake for it.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

I promise Norma I’m going to stop working so hard — after the next deadline. At the moment I say it, I’m as earnest as any religious fanatic convinced of his own ravings. But if I died today, I’d be too busy to attend my own funeral: there’s the next issue to get out, the next meeting to attend, the next stack of manuscripts to read. Maybe then I’d jump in my car and try to get to the memorial service before it was too late. I’d pay my respects to the man who worked right up until the end, trying to save himself, or the world, even after he’d realized he couldn’t save either.

When my daughter Mara calls me a workaholic, I tell her there’s a world of difference between being addicted to work and being dedicated to a labor of love. But I have to admit that even a labor of love exacts a price. It’s family lore that, after having stayed up all night to finish an issue, I took my young daughters to an art museum. While they looked at Italian paintings from the fifteenth century, I leaned against a wall, closed my eyes, and fell asleep.

I can’t blame the deadlines, or the e-mail, or the ringing phone. They’re not the reason I forget to pause, to breathe deeply, to remember who I am. I always have a choice: to stay grounded or to let myself be seduced. Busyness wraps her arms around my neck, tells me what a great guy I am, asks if I’d mind helping her with a few things. Oh, that perfume! 

Are busyness and ferment necessarily bad? In the movie The Third Man, a character observes that thirty years of turmoil in Italy under the Borgias produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance, while five hundred years of peace in Switzerland produced the cuckoo clock.

Yesterday I picked up a twenty-year-old issue of The Sun. According to the masthead, four people worked with me in the office. The magazine had fourteen thousand subscribers. Today The Sun has nearly seventy thousand subscribers. Eleven people work beside me, and seven more work from home. That’s eighteen in all: two baseball teams. Two teams, one manager — and perhaps not much of a manager at that. But I’ve always been ambivalent about being a boss or seeing myself as a “leader.” MBA students with their eyes on the corner office take courses in leadership. I gravitate to Plato’s model: the best leader is someone who isn’t interested in the job.

Twenty years ago, I spent more time talking with my colleagues than I do now. No one was out of the loop. Had someone suggested that one day we’d use something called “e-mail” to communicate with one another, I’d have laughed. There were no formal job descriptions; we just had work to do, and we did it. Did people sometimes feel dissatisfied or unappreciated? Of course. It wasn’t some golden age, but it was a different age. For me, personally, was it more agreeable? That’s hard to say. Back then, I reminisced about the 1970s, when The Sun had fewer than a thousand subscribers and a staff of part-time volunteers. 

I didn’t start The Sun with a recipe. I made it up as I went along. I’m still making it up, even though the kitchen is so much bigger and better equipped now, with decent knives and sturdy pots and pans. But water still boils at the same temperature, and hunger is still hunger. I mean the hunger to break bread, and the other hunger: to break bread together.

I dreamt that I was wandering around The Sun’s office, only the furniture was different and the staff was different and no one knew who I was. Maybe I’m anticipating my next career move, when I segue from being The Sun’s editor and publisher to The Sun’s resident ghost, bewildered as only ghosts can be that everything has changed; not realizing — at least at first — that there are better ways to communicate with the still-living than to harass them with the usual ghost shtick. I told them I didn’t want to be any trouble, but was there a chance they could set me up with an old manual typewriter and a desk made from a dead tree? They were all so young. They were all so busy. They had a deadline to meet, they said. I knew all about deadlines but had the good sense to keep my mouth shut. I was glad that they were working so hard. I was glad that they were publishing a real, honest-to-God independent magazine, even though I wasn’t real anymore. 


Reprinted with permission from Many Alarm Clocks by Sy Safransky and published by The Sun Publishing Company, 2015.