Tag Archive | time

How old are you?

I have often noticed and sometimes remarked on how, as I age, my self-image is different from what I see in a mirror. I’m not sure if any of us ever manage to coordinate the two. We continue to see ourselves as younger than we really are. There are a plethora of quotations from the famous and not so famous about the problem.

Said E. B. White, “Old age is a special problem for me because I’ve never been able to shed the mental image I have of myself – a lad of about 19.”

Charles Olson declared, “I remember way back when I was young, 10 years ago.”

And from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Old age is fifteen years older than I am.”

My favorite of the more recent remarks I’ve read isn’t so much about old age as just aging generally. It comes from Margaret Atwood. “I believe that everyone else my age is an adult whereas I am merely in disguise.”

The most comforting statement comes from Madeleine L’Engle:  “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”

Exactly.

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Fragments of time

Most of us walk around with time strapped to our wrists, and most of our watches are digital. We see only one number at a time. On the other hand, for those of us who still use a circular clock face, that number is seen in the context of many others. It’s located by moving hands. Time experienced as analogue has a wholeness and flow that digital time doesn’t.

Does this have anything to do with the fragmentation of our lives?

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The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

The insignificance of us

How utterly strange, tentative and untethered our lives are. There are other words to describe our  situation—many, many of them—but I won’t try to come up with them here.

Physicist and novelist Alan Lightman looks at “Our Place in the Universe” in a recent article in Harper’s magazine and tries to describe how small we are in a universe whose size is unimaginable—and growing. “Simply put, the cosmos has gotten larger and larger. At each new level of distance and scale, we have had to contend with a different conception of the world that we live in.”

How large? The most distant galaxy we know about, says the author, is approximately  100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles from Earth. The average distance between galaxies is about 2 million light years. (Some of us may remember learning that a light year is the distance light travels in 6 trillion miles.) Oh, sure!

Farthest ever view of the universe from the Hubble telescope, containing thousands of galaxies. 13.2 billion years ago. NASA.

All of these are unimaginable numbers. They keep growing as astronomers are able to peer deeper and deeper into space. “A question naturally arises,” writes Lightman. “Could the physical universe be unending in size? That is, as we build bigger and bigger telescopes sensitive to fainter and fainter light, will we continue to see objects farther and farther away—like the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Yongle, who surveyed his new palace in the Forbidden City and walked from room to room to room, never reaching the end?”

Even more breath-taking, keep in mind that that distant galaxy is not only “farther and farther away” in space, it’s farther away in time. We’re looking into the past. We’re seeing the edge of the known universe as it was almost 14 billion years ago.

As Lightman points out, we can’t really understand any of this. Oh, there are people who understand it intellectually, “but our emotional reality is still limited by what we can touch with our bodies in the time span of our lives.”

The author calls attention to another bunch of figures that derive from the estimates scientists have made about the possible presence of life in other parts of the universe. They show that the fraction of stuff in the visible universe that is alive is something like one millionth of one billionth of one percent. “If some cosmic intelligence created the universe, life would seem to have been only an afterthought.”

So much for the significant human!

In the course of his article, Lightman mentions the philosopher, George Berkeley who argued that the whole cosmos is a creation of our minds and that there is no reality outside our thoughts. As a physicist, says Lightman, he “can’t accept that belief.” Largely because of science, most of us would agree with him.

But science has also concluded that the typical table is not really solid, no matter how it feels when you thump it with your fist. It’s made up of whirling electrons and other molecular whatsits. Reality is not what it seems. Something is there but it’s not exactly what we experience. It’s at least partly a construction of our minds which, by the way, would seem to apply to our incredible intellectual construct of the cosmos too.

Lightman’s conclusions are awesome, disorienting, frightening — all of that and more. But they’re far from the last word. Our relationship to reality is, I think, much more complicated than we know. We may not be George Berkeley idealists, but I’m not sure that it’s any more accurate to adhere to the materialism of science.

10,000 year-old-clock

I’ve always been uncomfortable about the passage of time. Nevertheless, I remember as a child debating with my sister about the wooden grandfather clock in my grandparents’ kitchen. It chimed on the quarter, half hour and hour. Would she inherit it or would I? Even then I knew it wasn’t worth much—it came straight from a Sears catalogue. As it turned out, we were both busy somewhere else in the world when my grandparents moved to Assisted Living. I don’t know what became of the clock.

Watches and clocks are wonderful machines. There’s something intensely lovely and human about them. Which is surprising when I think about it. Time isn’t a warm, cozy phenomenon. It measures the beginning and ending of everything. It’s a source of hope and a harbinger of death. And still, I like clocks.

Clocks age gracefully. But I just read about a ten thousand year old clock. Unimaginable. Ten thousand years ago were there any clocks of any kind? Were there numbers to measure time? Were there people to measure it? About six thousand years ago, people were only beginnning to read and write. Eleven, maybe twelve, thousand years ago they made their first tentative beginnings at tilling the land. Who knows?

But the 10,000-year-old clock that I’m talking about is a work in progress. The largest clock ever made—with gears of stainless steel, titanium and something called silicon nitride—it will be tucked down a long stone tunnel chiseled into limestone on a stretch of West Texas desert. “Over the course of its 10,000-year life span, it will be able to power itself enough to keep time, synchronize that timekeeping with the sun, and randomly generate unique melodies on its chimes so that visitors will never hear the same tune twice. And it will do so entirely without electricity.” All of this from a technological journal.

The geeks building this long-living clock are searching out possibilities and materials that will withstand weather and the millenia. For example, the clock doesn’t tick every second; it works in ten second units, which should extend its life by a factor of ten.

In an age where speed reigns supreme, where everything happens more and more quickly, the clock is about the long term. One of the clock’s inventors, electrical engineer Danny Hills, built his career on making fast machines. …. He was struck by evidence that our increasingly accelerated culture is eroding our ability to think about the future. Building an ageless clock was a way to bring long-term thinking back. …. the world needs to learn to think long term or risk failing to appreciate century-spanning problems like climate change and deforestation.

Ironically, one of the creators of the project and its major funder is Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder and head of Amazon
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I’ve been trying to think about this incredible clock ever since I read about it. It isn’t, of course, the first monument meant to last for many millenia. The pyramids, Stone Henge…  The difference, it seems to me, is that they were built for religious reasons, and they were meant to be forever. The reason for this clock is of our time and deeply secular. The clock has an expiration date. The reason for its creation is about what humans must do for themselves.

I try to imagine what the world will be like in ten thousand years. Cultural changes are accelerating. Today, even a century means change that is unimaginable.

Most of all, I wonder why, even now, I find the idea of the clock charming, warming, a little whimsical, magical even. What is it about clocks anyway?

Some more poetry

William Butler Yeats wrote a good bit of poetry about growing older—I’m not sure why. But this is one of his best known.

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

– Those dying generations – at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

 

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.

 

O sages standing in God’s holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.

 

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

– William Butler Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium

 

Here’s a very lovely poem, a very interesting poem, by Milosz.

On the day the world ends

A bee circles a clover,

A fisherman mends a glimmering net.

Happy porpoises jump in the sea,

By the rainspout young sparrows are playing

And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

 

On the day the world ends

Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,

A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,

Vegetable peddlers shout in the street

And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,

The voice of a violin lasts in the air

And leads into a starry night.

 

And those who expected lightning and thunder

Are disappointed.

And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps

Do not believe it is happening now.

As long as the sun and the moon are above,

As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,

As long as rosy infants are born

No one believes it is happening now.

 

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet

Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,

Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:

No other end of the world will there be,

No other end of the world will there be.

– Czeslaw Milosz, A Song on the End of the World (translated by Anthony Milosz)

The Poet and Old Age

Old age is frequently a subject that inspires mirth, and of course much of it comes at the expense of us, the old people—of which I am one! But none of these intend to ridicule, so enjoy, whatever age you are.

There was an Old Man with a beard,

Who said: “It is just as I feared!

Two Owls and a Hen,

FourLarks and a Wren

Have all built their nests in my beard.”

– Edward Lear

 

… The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

William Shakespeare – As You Like It

 

“I was looking in the mirror the other day and I realized I haven’t changed much since I was in my twenties. The only difference is I look a whole lot older now. ~

– George Carlin

Old age ain’t no place for sissies. -Bette Davis

The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title, the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel

which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

- Forgetfulness by Billy Collins

The library at nightfall

 Now he would prowl the stacks of the library at night, pulling books out of a thousand shelves and reading them like a madman. The thought of these vast stacks of books would drive him mad; the more he read, the less he seemed to know—the greater the number of books he read, the greater the immense uncountable number of those which he could never read would seem to be… He read insanely, by the hundreds, the thousands, the ten thousands…. The thought that other books were waiting for him tore at his heart forever. He pictured himself as tearing the entrails from a book as from a fowl. – Tom Wolfe, Time and the River
                                                                                                                                

And that’s the problem with libraries. With bookstores. And certainly with the internet. With life.

Stories, multifarious facts, ideas, questions of every shape and size range around us and the day is beginning to fade and there’s not enough time left. There’s never been enough time left.

Night falls in the library