Wednesday, January 1, 2020

(Yet Another) Meditation on Time and Memory

Time is relentless, the tide which measures
the perturbations of the cosmos.

Once again I've come upon a story, serendipitously, just when I was musing about just how quickly things seem to be happening these days. The link is to a short story written in 2010 by SF and fantasy writer Jay Lake, who died in 2014. In it he considers the probability that if "human thoughts moved with the pace of bristlecone pines, we would never have invented the waterwheel, because rivers flash like steam in that frame of reference. Likewise if we were mayflies—flowing water would be glacial." The slow pace of geological time, we are reminded by Carl Sagan and others, renders the whole of human existence but a mote in time. The Bristlecone pines, I should note, grow not far up the White/Inyo Mountains from Uhlmeyer Spring, where my banner shot was taken. They are about 5000 years old.

A good friend and former colleague came to town a few days ago, and we got together for the first time in a year to catch up and to celebrate each others' birthdays and the holidays. We usually manage to do this twice a year, but he's been busy with his new life in his home town, and The Beloved Spouse and I have been preoccupied with dog-rearing and a bit of house renovation, so this was the first chance we'd had to reconnect since last December.

The time issue came up in conversation first in regard to retirement life, when neither TBS nor I could remember how long we'd been voluntarily out of work. Later, when I was trying to remember what had been occupying me during the last three years of not being a wage slave to a proprietary educational institution, I came to marvel at the number of things I used to accomplish while I was teaching five four-hour classes per week, eleven weeks per quarter, four quarters per year. 

Not only was I wrangling the class load (with its incessant grading, prep, faculty development, course and syllabus updating and the hour or so drive to and from campus), but I was maintaining a massive course website (Owldroppings, now retired) with extensive original content for each of my courses (Art History I and II, Writing I or II, Intro to Humanities, and an upper level elective), and at one time maintaining four blogs--including this one. Only one of the others is still more or less active (Owl's Cabinet of Wonders), but for a year or two I really was trying to post on the others as well, and on all much more regularly than I do this one. I was also pretty active on a fanboy website devoted to Joss Whedon's film Serenity (and indirectly to the TV series it was based on, Firefly), which meant several hours of online conversations per week. During some of that time, I was still writing letters home to my Dad, for which I'm glad I found the time, because, thanks to e-mail, I still have most of that correspondence.

In addition to all that, I successfully completed several online courses through Coursera and other venues, during a fit of MOOC-ing: Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets (Brown U); Ancient Egypt: A History in Six Objects (University of Manchester); Japanese Culture Through Rare Books (Keio U); Live! A History of Art for Artists, Animators, and Gamers (Cal Arts); Philosophy and the Sciences (Edinburgh); Photography: A Victorian Sensation (Edinburgh); Sagas and Space (Zurich); Ideas from the History of Graphic Design (Cal Arts). I didn't quite make it through Imagining Other Earths (Princeton) or Introduction to Sustainability (UIUC) or the image-making course from Cal Arts. Not completing these latter three indicates that I might have run into time constraints along the way.

Somehow, during the more-than-fifteen years we were both teaching after we moved into our labor-intensive house, we also managed to keep a garden, herd several cats and a couple of dogs, make an occasional trip out to visit the Auld Sod in California, and do things to keep the house livable.

Nowadays it seems impossible to me that I could have done all that. The only online activity I've got going on at the moment is Quora, and I'm writing less and reading more on that. I no longer think that there's a whole lot more I can offer to the body of Quora information on breast-feeding, child-rearing, Star Trek, science fiction, nineteenth-century American literature, and cookery after mouthing off on all of this since 2011. I'm pretty sure that very few people really care what I have to say about any of it, although I do get occasional upvotes. But the most "popular" answer I've ever written was on whether or not Sam Clemens could really have met up with the Enterprise crew as depicted in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, "Time's Arrow," and seldom do I get many comments--so for me it's more of a means to keep my brain working and a platform for food philosophy than anything really interactive.

As those few who still come by The Farm these days know, I don't show up often, although I frequently think of stuff that might make good content. I'm now thinking of retiring Owl's Cabinet, since much of what I write there would work quite well here, and I'm even more neglectful that blog than I am of this one.

Things could change a bit here, though. The Beloved Spouse and I are currently engaged in a bit of kitchen renovation that might provide good blog fodder, and my latest archival project will almost certainly find its way onto these pages. I'm transcribing nearly two years' worth of letters my (maternal) grandfather wrote to my grandmother from France during WWI. Not only that, but we're planning a sort of fact-finding, visit-neglected-family visit out west as early in the spring as we can make it. The noisier this little "farm" gets (from increasing local highway racket and neighborhood construction), the more we long for acreage and quietude, so our trip west this year will wind northerly so we can visit Oregon and Washington to see my son and his wife and my father's brother and his family. Likely new home venues will be part of the itinerary. After that, we'll wander south to try to catch up with my late brother's kids in Nevada before heading to the Owens Valley for some boondocking in Porco Rosso (now to be towed by Totoro the Gladiator) and dog/cat adventuring. 

Other plans for the new year include a quick trip down to Padre Island to see how Porco does on the road behind the new truck, and to re-acclimate the animals to RV life before the longer trip. I've also got ideas for transforming Owl's Farm: The Website (formerly known as Owldroppings) into a sort of lifelong-learning resource. One possibility is a sort of Eltern-garten (Old Folks' equivalent of a kindergarten), or a modification of the old course site with updates in the fields I covered. A good deal of research and archaeological discovery has taken place in the last five years or so that might make it worth while to revisit some of my old fields of expertise.

In the last couple of years I've also been fairly faithful at keeping a reading journal, and a little less faithful at a design/sketchbook.

Which brings me to the topic of memory. As we all know, our memories begin to transmogrify as we age, and mine is doing so somewhat predictably. I don't have too much trouble with the big events, but short term is pretty iffy, and that's one reason for my fidelity to the reading journal. This is, of course, a familiar pattern to many folks my age--as is my preoccupation with firming up family history and uncovering mysteries that no one has yet solved. So I'll continue trying to complete family trees and compile historical events drawn from old letters and documents left to me by my grandmother(s). I'm calling this latter effort "epistolary archaeology," and I think that my grandfather would be especially happy with what I'm doing, since his expressed wish in his letters was to use them in lieu of keeping a diary, so that he (and presumably his offspring) would have access to his war memories. I expect that these will also someday find their way into the appropriate archive.

Is it really 2020? I can remember when 2000 still sounded like a science fiction date, and I wasn't sure (in 1995) I'd make it that far into the future. My grandfather's letters were written in 1918 and 1919 (I was reading them a century after they were written!). He didn't die until 1973, and I do wish I had known about the letters earlier, so I could have asked for more of his story. But they were in my mother's keeping, and she didn't die until 1999, and I didn't even see them until 2000.

I can't say that I'm terribly sanguine about our collective future, but I do hold out some hope that during the next decade we become smarter, more thoughtful, and kinder. As Virgil noted rather famously in his Third Georgic, "Sed fugit interea, fugit inreparabile tempus." What we most often see shortened to "tempus fugit" ("time flies") more accurately points out that it's also irretrievable--not unlike the tides of time Jay Lake so aptly notes in his story, where he also observes that "we are all time travelers, moving forward at a speed of one second per second. The secret to time travel was that everyone already does it."

The pace suits me. It gives me time to think, to imagine alternatives, to read what others have imagined, and to be grateful that we don't yet have household robots or flying cars. For some reason I always enjoy looking toward the future, appreciating the past, and being happy about whatever time I have left. There always is, it seems, hope.

Happy new year, Folks. Live long and prosper.

Image credit: Graham, Joseph, Newman, William, and Stacy, John, 2008, The geologic time spiral—A path to the past (ver. 1.1): U.S. Geological Survey General Information Product 58, poster, 1 sheet. Available online at via Wikimedia Commons.