Sunday, April 17, 2005

Timeless

For me, it’s Thursday: every time I turn around, it’s Thursday.
Time is just whipping by – hurtling, speeding, careening – and for some reason my measure is the blink–and-you’ll-miss-it shocking regularity of waking up to discover it’s Fashion day in the newspaper, hospital visit in the afternoon, Survivor on at night, “hasn’t it been a week since I’ve had red meat, time to have a steak again” Thursday.
It’s creepy – and creeping – and just because this is a naturally occurring phenomenon for people my age (and oh God, I have stuff in common with people in their forties) doesn’t make it any less distressing.
The only convincing explanation I was able to find that describes the change in one’s sensation of time passing, goes something like this:
If you think of the lives of children, each day at an early age is a significantly long portion of their life to that point. A four year old has experienced (if all goes according to plan and they make it into ripe old age) approximately 1/1460th of their life every single day, and each day after (naturally) the percentage of their life decreases.
So the deal is, the mathematical percentage-of-total-life of each day will progressively get smaller each day, which means that when we hit around 40, even if we make it to say, 80, we will be travelling through our lives at a rate that makes us feel as though we’re 70% along. It’s not a conscious thing I believe, just some sort of mental deal we make with our inner clock – an un-pinpointable, though fully functioning internal mechanism that tells us where we are on our own personal timeline each and every day.
Perhaps this is why we often see older people moving so slowly and deliberately, as though each step was re-grounding them, balancing them and settling them before they make their next move: it’s not just because of arthritis, aching muscles or even a dodgy hip, it’s because by that time at the speed they’re moving through life they have to grab on to the skin of the planet ever more firmly, or risk being hurled off as it spins ever faster in their personal date with finite time destiny.
Or maybe not.
I’m not sure I understand – math was never my strong subject; feeling, interpreting, intuiting… these are my tools for navigating the vagaries of the mystery of life and time.
Clearly there was no genetic connection in this area with my Dad who was a bit of a time freak, with a love of clocks that stopped just short of chronic. When he died and my brother and sister and I split up his collection (a lofty word for bunch of stuff in the same basic category of use) I inherited an ancient (though still working) 19th century grandfather clock he’d picked up at an auction at Knole Park in England; four Victorian-era mantlepiece-style clocks (not working, but attractively rendered for your ornamental viewing pleasure in over-the-top Victorian Roccoco); a carriage clock from the turn of the century (which makes an outrageously loud ‘BONG’ for a timepiece only about a foot high and eight or so inches across); an exquisite gold half-hunter, repeater (it chimes the hours) pocket watch from 1837; and a gorgeous old Atmos clock by Jaeger le Coultre that is reputed to be able to run non-stop for 600 years without cleaning, winding or re-setting as long as it sits perfectly balanced on its conveniently spirit-leveled base.
(This is how it works: inside a sealed capsule contained within the completely glass-covered and protected clock mechanism, a mixture of gas and liquid expands as the temperature rises, then contracts as it falls, moving the capsule back and forth like a tiny unseen accordion. This motion is used to constantly wind the mainspring which enables the clock to run and keep perfect time. A small temperature variation of just one degree is sufficient for over two day's operation, and since such a variation occurs naturally in normal room temperature, without any additional sources of energy the Atmos clock will continue to run, if left untouched, "forever". As long as the sun shines – or so goes the advertising bunph – the clock will continue to mark time: the supposedly impossible perpetual motion engine... works. At least, so far. Just another five hundred and sixty-five more years to go to prove it by me.)
It was when he brought the clock back from a trip to Switzerland in 1970 that I began to understand his fascination and love for timepieces. Who wouldn’t be entranced by the magic of a clock that runs forever?
But unlike the ticking, bonging, ringing, clanging, hourly cacophony – interspersed with the bizarre long and short bells of the ship’s clock marking each of the 24 hours, whose number of corresponding dings I still haven’t figured out – that punctuated my growing-up life, my life now is eerily quiet. Not a tick or a tock, or a bong or a ding marrs my home now; yet the clocks are everywhere, silently reminding me of a different time and place.
But there are other ways to mark the passage of the unforgiving hour: I can wake myself without an alarm clock (handy, as I don’t have one) simply by hitting my head on the pillow the same number of times as the hour at which I wish to rise. Just to be clear: this is not the number of hours between the time I lay my weary head upon the pillow and the time I choose to lift it up again; it is the hour of the day. Thus, if it is 11 PM and I wish to wake up at 7 AM, I hit 7 times – the hour itself, and not the difference which would be 8. And to make it even more intriguing, built within my built-in inner alarm, is a snooze button: I always awake at 5 minutes before the appointed hour. Always. Even with daylight savings. I don’t know how it works, but it does.
And this is also not to say that I am indifferent to the actual passing of timepiece-related time; though I have a bunch of watches collected over the years, including the valuable gold Omega my mother left me when she died, I wear, each and every day without fail – summer or winter, formal or casual, accessorized or no – a $25 stainless steal, expandable bracelet no-name watch that I couldn’t live without. You see, it has Indiglo – and for a short-sighted person with a near constant yen to see how much time remains before the credits roll in the movie theatre, or to discover just exactly what time it is when the dog wakens her for the third time in a night to be lifted on or off the bed, Indiglo is a Godsend. I would as much leave the house without my watch as without my underwear – in fact, I’d be more likely to leave au natural, risking a brisk wind and an up-flipped kilt, than leave Indiglo-less.
Luckily so far it is the passage of days, and not minutes or hours that I notice shooting past; I can hardly bear to imagine the implications of noticing the latter. It’d be like living increasingly dog, then horse, then butterfly, then mayfly time, measuring life in sips and dribbles rather than long, lovely draughts.
The dog is getting older – I can see changes coming faster than ever. At eleven years old, her eyes are becoming cloudier and her courage in negotiating stairs and corners more tentative. Her funny little Yorkshire Terrier legs are deteriorating – going from al dente to over-cooked spaghetti almost before my eyes. And she sleeps – oh how she sleeps! – though unfortunately like many elderly folks, not always through the night.
But of course she doesn’t know – the change to her is so gradual as to seem natural. Likely she thinks (if in fact she does think, beyond Milk Bones and dinner time) that I’m just turning down the lights a little each day… and that the steps are simply growing higher, and sleep is just a skill she’s becoming more and more practiced at. (She’s good – I’ll give her that.) But all of this specualtion is unlikely too; it’s considered common knowledge that dogs don’t possess a sense of time at all. That a day, a week, a year isn’t just something they don’t figure out, but quite literally can’t. At least, this is what they told us when we had to quarantine a couple of our dogs a couple of times over during trans-Atlantic moves. I accepted this – and still do – though my fear was always that the time lapses wouldn’t seem short and insignificant to them, but inifinite and unbearable.
Looking at Lily (asleep, as usual, on the highest pillow on the bed) it’s clear that the passage of time bothers her not so much as a lost Snausage.
So what does it all mean?
To me it means the dual-edged blade of the sword that separates yesterday from today: the dilemma of either appreciating the comfortingly familiar, pre-determined quality that unites us all – the great equalizer – balanced against the horror of encroaching age. It seems that contrary to my long-held beliefs, I might not live forever.
But it raises an interesting notion: if we lived forever, would it mean that we would experience the same child-like surprize at each day, occassionally railing against the slow movement of time that held us back from adult pleasures and independence? Or would we live lives of yawning, endless, inifinite boredom?
According to the mathematical ‘percentage-of-total-life’ theory, it is the inexperience of children that makes everyday events far more relevant to them than to we who have experienced them over and over. As the brain gets older, the ratio of ‘new experience’ to ‘application of experiences to current situation’ decreases, and we feel like we have experienced something significantly ‘more’ only when we have experienced something new.
So there’s the key;and whether you learn it by scouring the internet and science books for an explanation of the nature of the passage of time, or by simply living life fully – looking for the new and the extraordinary and the unfamiliar – you can live at your own speed. Not ageless, but timeless.
Though a spirit-leveled base probably helps.

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