Saturday, March 29, 2008

Time, Again

Two days ago, my firstborn child turned 32; two days from now would have been my grandmother’s “eleventy-first” birthday (she was born in 1897 and died in 2001)—and although there won’t be wizard-designed fireworks and a big cake and party, I will probably celebrate by lifting a glass in her name (even though she herself was not a tippler). My son’s a year younger than Frodo was when Bilbo turned 111, and the dates aren’t exact, but I thought the parallel (for a couple of Tolkien fans) was close enough to mention—and he’ll undoubtedly have lifted a pint or two of the Gaffer’s best brew in honor of himself. The passage of time is, consequently, much on my mind, especially since spring has sprung and growth is becoming increasingly visible and tangible.

As if the mere season weren’t enough, however, one of my favorite comic strips, Rick Kirkman’s and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues is on a “Days are long/years are short” kick, every day reminding me how quickly children grow up. I’ve loved this strip for years because the mom has breastfed all three of her kids, and the nursing jokes alone are worth their weight in . . . well, you get the idea. As the strip’s kids grow, they frequently remind me of the trials and tribulations of raising siblings who don’t get on all that well, which often slips my mind now that they live half a continent apart from each other and are great chums. The distance probably helps.

At any rate, unfinished business from my last post is still lurking, especially since it was originally inspired by an article in last Sunday’s Dallas Morning News: Carolyn Johnson’s piece on “The Joy of Boredom,” which I never got around to mentioning last time. As I’ve undoubtedly mentioned before, I’m fond of telling my students (when they tell me something I’ve asked them to read is “boring”) that boredom reflects a lack of imagination. I go on to boast, in my best preacherly tone, that I have never been bored in my life. It’s probably a lie, because I’m sure I’ve been faced with an interminable lecture or two, complete with bullet points, that I actually found boring. But at least I can’t ever remember being bored, and even when told to read something I wouldn’t otherwise have tackled, I always seemed to find some value in it (if only the knowledge that God wouldn’t assign me to the fires of hell for having disobeyed Sister Francisca). Nonetheless, my own students are difficult to convince, and sometimes I wish I were more like a Dominican. The fear of God was a prime motivator in my day, but the most evangelically-oriented of my students don’t seem to be cowed by visions of hell, not even when they’re illuminating Canto V of Dante’s Inferno.

Johnson’s point is that boredom is not only inevitable, but “a primordial soup for some of life’s most quintessentially human moments”:

Jostled by a stranger’s cart in the express checkout line, thoughts of a loved one might come to mind. A long drive home after a frustrating day could force ruminations. A pang of homesickness at the start of a plane ride might put a journey in perspective.

She goes on to note that technology has come to the aid of the bored, offering them myriad ways to fill up those moments of ‘microboredom’ (she’s quoting Motorola here), putting folks out of potential misery by making sure they’re engaged (whether or not in anything worthwhile) at all times.

To me, time is the important element in this assessment: the frenetic filling-up of time that seems to preoccupy modern culture more and more, so that people feel compelled to be “doing” something in addition to what they’re already doing. (Who the hell really needs to tap out a text message while driving the bloody SUV through a school zone, anyway?)

Now, I will admit to having answered my cute little iPhone exactly three times while driving on the freeway. But even just picking it up and figuring out how to answer it (I’m not exactly adept with the thing yet) was distracting enough to make me slow down and become very deliberate about my actions, and to be very happy to hang up. But most of the time I try to call home and answer any missed calls before I get on the road, so that my drive time can be spent (there’s that pesky little time is money metaphor again) sorting through the day and—oh, yes: attending to the driving of the car.

Boredom, it would seem, is tied these days to how we think of time, and the “spending” of it. Our most common cliché reflects our attitude: it flies when we’re having fun, even though the Latin (from which it probably derives) implies regret. Tempus fugit (time flees) suggests that it escapes, gets away from us. It does seem to be the case that the older we get the more conscious we are of time’s passing, and the less anxious we are for it to get away from us. The experience of time is always relative—it often dilates when we’re engaged intensely in some activity, and contracts when we’re enjoying ourselves—but our consciousness about time might also increase as we proceed, kicking and screaming, toward its “end.”

I tend to rail at my students for using the phrase “since the beginning of time” because it’s meaningless (when exactly did time begin, anyway?), and its opposite is equally silly: “until the end of time” (that’s how long I’ll love you, say the songs). Human beings are babies in the chronology of the world, but we think we’re incredibly wise (whether it’s through religious belief or scientific knowledge). And we treat time cavalierly, wasting it, spending it, losing it, gaining it, playing with our clocks and yet pretending that it’s something terribly important and unknowable. We might do better to adopt a less linear view, as many other cultures have done, or notice more carefully the “events” on our natural calendars. A cyclical, recursive notion of time might forestall boredom entirely, allowing us to incorporate reflection as part of our daily lives, and not having to snatch at it only when we have nothing better to do, or when we have “time on our hands.” The link, by the way, leads to a lovely short film about Mt. Athos, in Greece, at Easter time.

According to the Maya, we’ve only got a few years left, anyway, since their current Long Count ends on my birthday in 2012. Wouldn’t you know—just when I’m due to retire and have more time to myself.

Photo: My father holding my eight week-old son, in the chair my grandfather bought for my parents when I was born.


Unknown said...

According to Stephen Hawking, since space and time are intertwined, time began when the universe began, and it'll end when the universe ends. The question of what came before the universe is meaningless because there wasn't any time before the universe.

Owlfarmer said...

Well, Hawking certainly knows time, but my view is rather more anthropocentric. Since we are the only species that seems to experience mechanical time, and to whom it is meaningful, perhaps we ought to make it meaningful, yes?

krimzon11 said...

But if we (the human species in general) didn't keep track of time, we wouldn't have anything as cool as this.

Owlfarmer said...

Which is, of course, why I'm not entirely willing to chuck the technology and move to the forest. Cool stuff like this would be really hard to give up!

Esther said...

Best picture ever!