How to Keep Time

Lately, I have been thinking about time. More precisely, I am concerned by the ways the passage of time has seemed to malfunction over the past few years. During this time, my life has changed. I left my job doing technical writing for a prominent defense contractor because I realized that this couldn’t be it. I moved halfway across the country to try to better understand myself in a new context: Chicago, graduate school, three years to write my way out of one life and into the next. Place this all against the backdrop of the Trump years: an amplification of crisis, dysfunction, and dread leading up to 2020, the year of my graduation, and also the year that didn’t happen. I coped with early COVID about as well as anyone else, which is to say not very well. Indeed, the stultifying, interminable quiescence of quarantine changed me. Trying to ignore the ugly specter of death hovering in the corner of every room I enter has made it hard to mark time, and harder still to appreciate exactly what I am experiencing. So you can excuse me for having a hard time with time, given that one of the most reliable ways for Americans to mark it lately, in the absence of almost any positive change, is by tracking the ebb and flow of crisis and yet, COVID feels like a steady stream, a year that won’t end, a latent anxiety that we just live with now.

What I can do is tell you the dates, the timeline I try to keep straight in my head to maintain some type of structure. I can tell you I moved back to Rhode Island in 2021, ending an eight-year relationship in the process. I can tell you I’ve been living around my parents and my sister and my childhood friends since then, writing and teaching and trying to shake this notion that time doesn’t exist anymore, except for where crisis scars it. I can tell you what I’m doing now. But now is a troublesome word, especially for me, especially, well, now.

In order to find a way out of this disquietude, I need to know: how do you write about something when it feels too urgent to be parsed and coated with care? Here is where the urgency of our modern world, this extended present of deterioration that seemed to really pick up momentum around 2016, collides with an urgency that has concurrently been percolating in private in my parents’ own Rhode Island home, where I grew up not all that long ago. Here’s the turn, an anxious two-step from outer world to inner, in the sense that writing about my father, a retired shipbuilder who just turned seventy, feels doubly urgent in a present that seems to portend disaster for both his health and the wider world. And here’s the part that I don’t want to say, for fear of actualizing that with which I’ve become obsessed: the thought of my father’s life being cut short, by cancer or some other complication he has contracted from his time at the shipyard, has cast a pall over my life.

My father, James (Jimmy) Barbieri, forty-two-year veteran of Electric Boat, the submarine-building subsidiary of General Dynamics, the very same company I left after a mentally crushing year, is retired, but not really. He has not worked in nearly half a decade, roughly aligning with the period of slippery time I have already described. Technically he is caught in a Workers Compensation purgatory, having made claims on a laundry list of failing body parts: knees (torn ligaments and worn-away cartilage), lungs (reduced breathing capacity and chronic cough), shoulder (torn rotator cuff), hands (arthritis), and nose (hair and cilia permanently burnt away). Conditions in the shipyard, especially early on, were brutal for a fabricator like my father. Breathing welding smoke, kneeling on frigid steel in unheated, asbestos-ridden buildings in the winter, sweating to the point of dehydration in the summer, and working with carcinogenic solvents on a daily basis. Here is where the latently adversarial relationship between employer and employee is laid bare, and also where EB would be feeling a kind of foil urgency to my own if this case wasn’t just a textbook example of their actuarial employment strategy. For while I am clinging desperately to his life in the hopes that he has much more of it left to live, they have a vested interest in seeing him die before any of these claims for his defective body can be settled in his favor. What tracks as a nefarious scheme from the perspective of the aggrieved worker is merely banal economics for a defense corporation that is fully invested in the business of human misery. “Another one for the charnel house!” a short, stout man in a hard hat calls down from his perch on some scaffolding beside the enormous cylindrical hull of a submarine. Surrounded by skeletons, neatly tucked away out of sight and mind of the American public, this is the dark place I go to whenever the subject of my father’s ruined body, and the litigation hanging over it, is brought up. I know that he goes there too, in his own way. I can see it in his eyes from across the dinner table as he hunches over his second plate of pasta. I hear it in his sigh as he struggles to lace up his shoes when we are on our way out the door. He is a round, impatient, beaten-down man in his pseudo-retirement, tufts of white hair askew, smile missing two front teeth, smelling familiarly of the sweat of exertion from heaving around his uncooperative frame whenever I nuzzle up next to him on the couch in the TV room where he spends most of his time these days, watching Archer or Boston Sports Tonight or impatiently flipping from local station to local station in search of the weather report or betting on horse races on the computer I assembled for him.

Cancer is a disease that just kind of pops up. It’s not like passing around a virus; there isn’t that sense of inevitability. Not every person who has worked or lived amongst dangerous carcinogens has developed cancer, not nearly. Nonetheless, I can’t shake the idea that, after years of carcinogen exposure in the shipyard, it’s a foregone conclusion. It’s been hanging over me, like a gauche Halloween ghoul of papier-mâché, tacked in crucifixion above the entryway in mid-August. And yet, despite this urgency, I have been putting off sitting down to write this sentence for years now. And this sentence. And this one. And this one. And on and on the joke could go, to infinity, or at least for as long as I keep adding to the chain. These words could stretch past the western horizon, could outlive us all if only I don’t break the sequence, if only I don’t stop. But in order to not stop, I have to start, and you’d think I would have been spurred to action before now, given how urgent this project feels to me; given how urgent everything feels. (Here becomes clear the pitfall: The fraught usage of the word now, given the Frankensteined, yearslong drafting and editing process this text has endured, never mind the presumptuous, demented optimism it would require to imagine you, dear reader, whoever and wherever you are, reading this as you bask in a future that somehow turned it all around.)

My father started working at Electric Boat with a team of thirty or so young, energetic men and women in the mid-70s. Now, with most of them no older than seventy, he estimates that only about a third of that original cohort are alive, many of his friends falling ill with throat or pancreatic cancer, which are the most serious offenders amongst a host of ailments caused by the consistently hazardous working conditions in EB’s shipyard. This is anecdotal, but there are scientific methods for proving such claims. One key method for identifying the effects of cancer-causing agents on a population is comparing cancer rates among people living or working in a certain exposed area with the expected rates among the general population. Rates often spike in populations that work at or live near different kinds of industrial or military or nuclear facilities. These spikes are known as cancer clusters. One problem researchers run into is the need for decades of hard data to detect a cluster. Another is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find untainted “control” populations to compare against, because our country is so deeply polluted—carcinogens, and therefore cancers, are everywhere. These scientific hurdles often leave the original culprits enough time to cover their tracks or happily live out their lives free of consequence. From the C-suite, the businessman eagerly checks his watch, which forges dumbly forward.

This is a problem for me. As time leaks and snags around me, I feel the need to exist outside of it—time away from business as usual, time to figure out what a healthy relationship to work looks like, so that I can carve out my own little network of barrow dens, a community where people sleep enough each night and take pleasure in the pursuit of merely living. The American working life knows of no such breaks in the timeline—it is mandatory fun, a metronome of coercion. This metronome, set up by the powers that be, has been ticking extra loudly since we were all sent back to work in the midst of COVID, enforcing passage of work hours and accumulation of their profits. But if my life is about anything right now, it’s about creating such a timeless place for myself, and bringing my father into its graces, before our time together becomes irretrievable.

One year, when I was living in Chicago, it snowed on Halloween and everything fell into a freeze overnight as the calendar flipped from October to November. It seemed as though the city was eager to complete the season with maximum efficiency, to check off the last few boxes under the heading Fall before filing it away in the Completed Projects folder. In the morning, as I turned aside the gate to my front door to let myself onto the sidewalk, I realized that every single leaf on the huge tree that shrouded the front of the building, still green in anticipation of a few more weeks to gradually wither on the branch, had fallen to the ground. I crunched atop this carpet of frosted green in my winter boots that I had struggled to dig out of the deepest recess of the closet. The walk to the gate and the sidewalk were utterly erased by the leaves; someone had hit fast forward through the rest of fall and left us—and the leaves—floored by winter. The metronome’s steady tick had for a day been replaced by a rapid-fire drum fill—Neil Peart (born the same year as my father and having since fallen victim to a lapse in time himself) riding the high hat relentlessly in the front yard. This is what keeps me up: this quickening, the moments where time unexpectedly speeds up, leading me to grasp for the green that has been taken from me instantly. My father is alive today (a “today” that has lasted for three years (or more?) as I’ve struggled with this essay), and so I must somehow stop time to keep it that way—sweep up the sand and place it in a tightly sealed Mason jar. If I write urgently, ignoring the false comfort of the metronome’s tick and giving myself over to the possibility that each night could be the one where all the leaves freeze off the tree at once, could that somehow create a long present for us to exist within?


Electric Boat Quonset Point Project Team Photo, circa 1980(?) My father is crouching in the front row, second from the left.

This photograph itself was probably only a few ticks away from destruction when I fished it off the floor of my father’s garage during a visit to Rhode Island. It was face down on the concrete, having fallen off a corkboard or out from underneath a magnet pinning it to the side of one of his manifold red steel tool cabinets. It was pitted with tiny pebbles and scuffed from being swept about on the floor with the detritus of disorganization, but somehow not ruined. “Where did you find that?!” he asked incredulously when I brought it over to show him. This is a recurring question in his three-car garage, a place where time decidedly does not pass, where parts and engines and tools and tires and miscellaneous papers go to collect dust, stacked and packed on top of each other in the most haphazard of ways. Jimmy has always loved cars, always wanted to be a professional mechanic, but for one reason or another, he was never able to find the time.

Digging through my father’s mess, trying to help him find something else entirely, I was naturally happy to have found the photograph, always on the lookout these days for anything even tangentially EB or submarine-related. My father immediately started reminiscing, distracting him from whatever daunting task we had been attempting to complete amidst his labyrinthine stacks prior to finding it. Usually it’s something related to one of his revolving cast of project sports cars. The general dysfunction of his projects since he completed his last project, a Cobra, over fifteen years ago is truly something to behold. Suffice to say that his general strategy of planning builds, slowly collecting all the parts necessary, and then not working on them at all has been an unsurprising failure, his motivation increasingly outflanked and besieged by the towering glut of parts and chassis. The frustration runs deep, my feelings about my father’s life and retirement inextricably linked to doubts about the viability of my writing aspirations. Here lies another, more troubling layer of fear: that I am doomed to turn out like my father, with lots of great ideas but without the conviction, and eventually without the capability, to see them through: a life given away to a dull career while passion simmers to a char, forever deferred.

Later, back in Chicago, I asked him on the phone to talk about this photo, and we spoke for an hour and a half. “And this guy… And this guy…” I could picture him jabbing the photograph with a calloused, arthritic finger as he explained each person in the photo. These were the people he worked with as he became a “lifer,” as his twenties turned the corner toward his thirties. In this picture, he is more or less the same age I am now. There is an air of youth to him. There is also a sense of danger, distrust of what was taking place in this sepia-tinted shipyard. I look at the smiles to see if they give anything away. Roland Barthes, the French thinker who wrote an entire book reflecting on photography, died around the same time this photo was taken. He may have pointed to the smiles on about half of the workers’ faces as the punctum of this image, the inciting disturbance that creates friction with the rest of the photograph and ultimately guides our interpretation. But these men and women would probably wonder why I’m bringing art criticism into something so simple. They would probably remind me that smiling is just something one does in front of a camera. The hubris of youth seems to guide these smiles, though; the surrounding mosaic pieces of context betray that the work for which they were being recognized in this picture was also irreversibly harming their bodies. Did they smile because they didn’t know? Because they were proud? Did they smile because they were outside on a sunny day instead of inside the deteriorating building behind them, which dusted them regularly with toxic particles loosed from the ceilings and walls? Maybe if I could speak to each of them now, I would find that one of my father’s coworkers, having read Barthes piecemeal during his lunch breaks, has a better analysis for me, a punctum that evades my eye.

My dad guesses that this team photo was taken in 1980, but who can say for sure? On the phone with me, he tried to recall by trying to remember what car he was driving at the time. “Not the Mustang…I had already gotten rid of the Mustang. I think I had the Celica, one of the first Celicas they made.” At that time, he would have been working at Electric Boat for four years already, learning on the job and settling in, making relationships with some of these men that would last another forty. The picture was taken out in front of Building 1. The old plane hangar was one of three that EB used when it opened its satellite facility at Quonset Point in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. The peninsula, which provides a deep-water port with access to Narragansett Bay, was home to a naval air station until 1974, and when the base was decommissioned, EB moved in to open a hull fabrication plant. As a result, my father first worked in repurposed plane hangars, buildings that had been in use since before the Second World War. The giant cylinders which make up the hull of a submarine—upwards of thirty feet high for the bigger boats—would be constructed in these buildings before being transported by barge down Narragansett Bay and into Long Island Sound to the main shipyard in Groton, CT. He recalled how the massive cylinders would cause the ground under the hangars to sink under the weight. These buildings are long gone now, having been demolished and replaced by facilities that aren’t lined with toxic asbestos and lead.

With the further context of my father’s commentary, the smiles begin to make more sense, to seem more human. He has insisted that, despite the chaotic and toxic work conditions, he genuinely enjoyed the earlier parts of his career at EB. This photo is a celebratory one, taken for a company-wide newsletter, lauding the team for its completion of a project that was overseen by an engineer my dad referred to only as “Steamer.” Nicknames are his way into memory. He pointed out Cookie. “Arthur Cook, my welder,” the man crouching next to him on the left. “I worked with him for forty years.” The two women tough enough to work on this shipyard team he tabbed from left to right as “Laura Hall” and “Jackie.” He can’t remember Jackie’s last name. That is another common theme of our conversations. Fragments are missing, forcing us to work with what remains.

John Holmander, the man posing with his right arm behind his back on the far left of the photo, figures into this history a bit more largely than the rest. He and my father worked together from the beginning in ’76, and their respective careers are interesting foils of each other. “He went from a bum biker to running the facility,” my father quipped. “I saved his ass so many times, punching him in and out when he forgot to.” His stories about John have never really added up to me. If Jimmy truly was the diligent employee who always covered for John, how was John the one chosen by the higher-ups to be spared from a life in the shipyard? Is it just my father exaggerating his own impact on John’s story? Or is it just a case of merit taking a backseat to savvy? I look at the man in the photo and I can picture the personality my father described—tough but smart, well-postured but aloof. What’s not hyperbole is that he did end up running the facility and more, retiring recently as Vice President of Operations of all Electric Boat. He got out of the shipyard early, became a true businessman, and it shows, especially next to my father, who never left the pipe shop, was never destined for any board room. I believe that John felt indebted to my father in some way. I used his clout-carrying name as a reference to apply to work as a technical writer at Electric Boat in 2015, and, despite having little relevant experience, I got an interview and was hired straightaway. We give what we can, and this is what my father was able to give me: my best chance at making money to date, a do-nothing gig collecting laundered Pentagon paychecks, a chance that I nonetheless declined to embrace.


A photograph offers us a sort of stasis, but it cannot account for intervening years, it cannot expound what has happened since each of its subjects broke their poses and stepped out of frame to continue with their lives. I see what happens when I ask an old man with a battered mind to try to remember the details of his life forty years ago. Bits are lost, misattributed, fabricated, misremembered—they come unglued and flutter to the garage floor. This is perhaps why many nonfiction writers are drawn to writing in the mode of elegy. What I mean is that a lot of writers write about loved ones after they have been lost. It’s easy to surmise why this is: writing elegy requires only looking backward at the life that was. But I can’t wait until my father is dead or incapacitated by illness; I am writing with him, not just about him. This project is a living thing, not a dead one, no matter how dark my prognostications about the near future get inside my own head. He is active collaborator as much as he is subject. I am also both a collaborator and a subject, but my subjectivity is a flash of a firecracker against dark asphalt; his is the slow burn of a welding torch, lit day after day for four decades in the same shipyard in the same state with many of the same friends. So I continue neurotically to gather up everything I can, everything he can offer. I can’t fight the impulse to try and retain it all, even though I know that the filing cabinets in his head have withstood many floods, rendering some bits waterlogged and indecipherable, even though I know there is only so much of what’s left that I can carry.

The flip side of this, of course, is a somewhat perverted realization: perhaps it’s easier to write about someone after they’re dead than while they are still with us. Conventional wisdom seems to dictate that a living subject can contribute more to a project than a dead one, but I’m not sure that’s true. When someone is dead, they can’t disrupt your perception of them anymore. The long present has at last come to an end. They can’t contradict your opinions of them, they can’t change, for the worse or for the better. A sort of stasis has been reached. They are finally sitting still for the still life. Is this why many writers only write about lost loved ones years after they’ve passed? It’s a sick trap: that we often rely on morbidity for clarity.

So, how can I split the difference? How can I get the living to “sit still?” The act of recording is a way of creating a space where the subject will always exist. This applies both to texts, in which the author as well as his subjects live on even after they have died (we should be so lucky, me and dad), and perhaps more directly to video recordings, in which the subject’s movements, mannerisms, looks, and voice are more readily available. I found myself devising a plan (one that hasn’t quite yet come to fruition, go figure) to follow my father around with a handheld camcorder, the way Agnes Varda, lifelong champion of “the rabble,” documents the lives of modern-day foragers in The Gleaners and I. In the film, she is obsessed with what was at the turn of the 21st century a very novel idea—the way that one could use a handheld camcorder to film one hand with the other. She pans over the wrinkles of her aging left hand, narrating: No, it’s not “O, rage.” No it’s not “O, despair.” It’s not “Old age, my enemy,” it might even be old age, my friend. But still, my hair and my hands keep telling me that the end is near. In fact, the end would not come for Varda for nineteen more years, over which she would make six more feature-length films. However, her awareness, and seeming acceptance, of her own approaching death is one of the reasons the film transcends the limits of typical documentary and becomes, in part, a film about the urgency of making art in the face of the encroaching mortality of the self and the ecosystem which we take for granted. With her narration, Varda references a monologue from the 17th century French tragicomedy Le Cid, in which Don Diego speaks a protracted lament that begins: O rage! O despair! O inimical old age! Have I then lived so long only for this disgrace? And have I grown grey in warlike toils, only to see in one day so many of my laurels wither? Does my arm—which all Spain admires and looks up to—does my arm, which has so often saved this empire, and so often strengthened anew the throne of its king, now betray my cause, and do nothing for me? O cruel remembrance of my bygone glory! O work of a lifetime effaced in a day!… The original version seems to be more representative of my father’s story. He recently said to me during a conversation about his car projects: “I worked all my life. I wanna spend some time and go fast in one of these rats.” His laurels are less likely than Varda’s to wither one by one. He does not see old age as an approaching friend. He’s banked the time; now he wants to spend it.

So, it’s up to me, then, to describe to you his chapped, calloused hands, his balding head, interspersed with age spots and ashy tufts, his pot belly, his grin, usually gapped unless he is bothered to insert his three-toothed partial denture. I must tell you how he laughs when I give him noogies, how he returns the favor by teasing me about how I could have been making six figures a year if I had stayed at EB. I must tell you what I can’t tell him to his face: that he is living proof of why I had to leave. I must do this before a lifetime of work is effaced in a day.

Already feeling the pressure of the future, I don’t know if I can also handle the pressure of witnessing Jimmy’s forgotten past. I don’t know exactly what I’m afraid of finding, just that whatever it is might drop a wrench into the gears, gumming up the works and compelling me to stick my hand into a dark, dangerous place to clear the jam. But I know that Varda would look, would stick her hand in with glee, and that urgency forces my hand as well.

While out with one of her trash-picking friends, Varda gleans the empty shell of a clock from a pile of rubbish and takes it home. A clock without hands is my kind of thing, she narrates, as its clear plastic body is shown resting on her mantel in front of a window. The shot cuts to a close-up of the clock, and she continues, You don’t see time passing. She then glides across the frame behind the clear, handless clock, moving all the way out of frame on the right, passing into and out of the stasis created by a clock that keeps no time.

In that slowdown, in that temporary stoppage, I must find the words and the will to center my father on the page, to keep time with him a while longer.

Jeffrey Barbieri is an essayist and poet who holds an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia College Chicago. He is also a 2020 Luminarts Creative Writing Fellow. He essays with a sociopolitical bent and is currently working on a collection about what it means to work, drawing heavily from his father’s 43-year career as a welder and pipefitter in a submarine shipyard. He recently returned to Rhode Island after four years in the Second City. He currently teaches writing at the University of Rhode Island.

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Issue 19

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