Sunday, February 26, 2012

Local Time

In spite of the relevance we give it, time is ultimately a feeble measure of experience. It's something I don't often think about, as I get in step with everyone else, noting five years since this, ten years since that. Fifty years ago last week John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. Eight years before that, the first polio vaccines were administered to children. In 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution confirmed that women should have the right to vote -- some one-hundred-thirty years after the U.S. Constitution was finally ratified by the last of the original thirteen colonies (way to go, Rhode Island). These are all remarkable benchmarks, but they're made more remarkable by every day that preceded and follows them. Just the thought of floating in space chills me to this day -- it is, somehow, too much for me to grasp on anything but an intellectual level. And yet it happened and continues to happen. It happened decades before cell phones and iPods and laptop computers. And polio: generations upon generations of families lived with the effects of that debilitating illness, and then one day it was all but eradicated. Don't even get me started on women's suffrage: can you even imagine a collective mindset that says women aren't entitled to have as much say in deciding social and political issues as men? I realize there are still considerable imbalances, but I'm talking about something fundamental, something that has existed for the entire lifespan of anyone reading this blog (presumably -- I doubt there are any ninety-three year-olds clicking through to the Bear Cave from Facebook). The fact that I can't even conceive of this particular society in which we live so recently having to scrap and fight in order to achieve something we can all agree makes perfect sense (in that its opposite is ludicrous) speaks to the ways in which the passage of time colors our impressions.

When we hear about something shocking or impressive, more often than not the first question that springs to mind is, "Wow, when did that happen?" We seek that particular context as a way to either relate to or distance ourselves from the event, and our incredulousness is measured by the duration of time that has passed. In the mid-nineteenth century slavery was finally done away with in America; in the 1960s Mississippi still burned, and when I was six years old the city of Boston, that pantheon of intermingled intellect and ignorance, rioted against attempts to bring some semblance of racial balance to inner-city schools. Just last week a staff writer at ESPN lost his job because he thought it would be hilarious to note the end of the New York Knicks' winning streak, in part made possible by the contributions of Chinese-American rookie Jeremy Lin, by posting the headline, "Chink in the Armor." Hilarious. One of the old saws in the world of comedy is that if you have to explain it, it's not funny. Sometimes the same can be said if you absolutely don't have to explain it.

I'm not raising these topics because I want to stir anybody into a frenzy -- they are just prime examples of how time is supremely relative. It's 2012, for fuck's sake. Just in my forty-plus years on the planet, we as a species have shown ourselves to be capable of remarkable things: artificial hearts and life-saving medicines, modes of transportation and communication only dreamt of in science fiction fantasies seventy years ago, and on and on and on. Again, it is the point in time before, and the stretch of infinity beyond, which fill us with awe.

A week ago I sat down to work on an essay that centered around a particular weekend during which I was left to my own devices in my friends' house, to watch their dog and cat and please, please, please not kill myself in their bathroom (or anywhere else). I spent that weekend shuffling around the quiet house, playing solitaire on my laptop, half-watching bad TV, swallowing a small pink pill every morning, napping on the couch with the cat curled up on my chest, the dog stretched beside me on the floor. I became mildly obsessed with a great blue heron that appeared in the stream behind the house, in spite of the fact that it was late December and the ground was blanketed with snow. It seemed like that heron shouldn't be there -- it was full-on winter, and I imagined heron, like most wading birds, would head to more hospitable climes. I mean, there were ducks -- lots of ducks -- but they stuck around because the old man across the way fed them throughout the year. But the heron had to find his own food. I worried about him, and so every morning I would stand at the window looking out on the stream, watching for him. Every morning he sailed down the stream from the north and landed in the shallow water below the dam, and because I saw him as an anomaly, I considered that we were not so unlike, this great blue heron and I: we were both out of our element, and only just barely in control of our destinies, limited as we were to the extent of our efforts to survive. A week and a day later, I woke up in the midst of a heavy snowstorm, and I wrote the story of my weekend of shuffling around like a sad old man, watching for a bird that shouldn't have been there any more than I should have.

That story means a lot to me: it was the first piece I'd written in a very long time that actually had some weight to it, and it was the beginning of what became a much longer narrative. As I tapped out the essay about writing that story, I found my mind wandering to that question: "Wow, when did that happen?" I cocked my head to the side, my fingers poised above the keys, and realized it had been just about fourteen months. And I was utterly stunned. Fourteen months? All that happened only fourteen months ago? I was unconvinced to the extent that I actually pulled up the calendar on my computer and did the math again.

Two months longer than a year might sound like a good chunk of time to you, but I can tell you, in the context of the months preceding and subsequent to that stretch of time, fourteen months is no time at all. It is certainly not enough time for a person to reinvent himself -- or, more accurately, reclaim.

Ultimately, that's the point: we are all, in truth, on local time. It's not the amount of time that passes that is most significant: it is that span of time relative to the events that have filled it.

Fourteen months. It might as well be two and a half lifetimes.