To ponder the passage of time
and how we each
relate to and experience aging
(a gust of wind undoes a morning at the coiffeur)
We are as wood chips spinning along on the surface of a flowing stream, carrying with us the memories of a lifetime of spinning along, including our encounters with others, and with ideas and images. Somewhere up ahead the roar of Niagara is louder than it was a while ago, and the flowing stream does seem to be picking up speed.
One gauge of the personal salience of Time comes from the habit of picking up things of the past and assessing what they mean in the present moment—what lights they may shed upon the NOW. I have two very current examples, from the last day or so.
Yesterday I was reading about Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths" in which a temporal labyrinth is described:
and I had a flash of memory of a phrase: "forkety fork fork" I thought, but couldn't remember whence it came or immediately imagine how to retrieve it. I remembered that I'd thought it an appropriate description of learning, especially of my own learning, but was it Rudy Rucker? Doc Searls? Dave Weinberger? (those were the immediate thoughts, all being people to whom I'm inclined to listen). Google was no help really—the actual phrase was "forky forked forked", the past tense. I found that I had cached the link in my Brisées et Bricolage collection, where I'd parked it in 2014 when Dave Weinberger used it to describe how 'progress' works on the Net.
So forky fork fork describes how I experience Time, rabbit hole to rabbit hole, ever Questing. On the one hand I deal pretty much daily with materials that span many millions of years and still find ways to speak directly with us, and which still have the power to dumbfound us with their being, their eloquence, their person-alities.
And on another hand, in recent Convivial weeks I've spent a lot of attention on my own experiences of time and space, especially in re: the geographies I've occupied and studied. And on still another hand, I regularly deal with short-scale time in music—syncopation, phrases, dynamics.
And my reading takes me hither and yon, in space and in time, down ever forkety forked forked pathways. How can I link this to "relate to and experience aging"? The tack I'd like to try is via a book I've been listening to while picking up trash, which I also have in print: The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination Ursula K LeGuin (2004) [she died in 2018, age 88]. The short pieces in the book are from when she was in her 60s and 70s, well established as a beloved Wise Woman in both her fictional and nonfictional selves.
It's worth noting that she is writing from the perspective of *NO Twitter and *NO Facebook and *NO YouTube, when the world was young. Even Google and Wikipedia were in their infancy. Print was her primary medium, in ways that we remember, but many of those now alive have scarcely known.
The world in which LeGuin wrote is no more, in various senses, and electronic communication continues to exert pressure on the Information we receive and experience. She says, prophetically:
In so far as writing becomes electronic, surely its categories and genres will change. So far, the new technology has influenced fiction only by opening to the novelist the garden of forking paths accessible through hypertext. Genuinely interactive fiction, where the reader would control the text equally with the writer, remains hype or a promise (or, to some, a threat). As for nonfiction, it seems that scant care for accuracy and fact checking, along with wide tolerance of hearsay and opinion, characterize a lot of what passes for information on the Internet. The transitory nature of Net communication encourages a freedom like that of private conversation. Rumor-mongering, gossip, pontification, unverified quotation, and backchat all flow freely through cyberspace, shortcutting the skills and/or self restraints of both fiction and factual writing. The pseudo-oral, pseudonymous, transitory character of electronic writing encourages an easy abdication of the responsibility that accrues to print. But that responsibility may be truly out of place in the Net. A new form of writing has to develop its own aesthetic and ethic. That's to come... (pg 132)In the 24 years since that quotation, a lot has changed in how people use text and media ...think iPhone, iPad... and we've all more or less kept up with necessary technologies, but probably not given much thought to exploring unfamiliar territory (viz: Virtual Reality). Thinking back to who we were and what we were doing 24 years ago is an interesting adventure. For myself:
24 years ago...what I thought and said and worked on had various direct effects on my W&L interlocutors and clients. I was a Player, and Influence on how stuff worked in various corners of the university. That ended in September 2005, and since then my 'influence' has diminished to almost nothing, BUT my pleasure and satisfaction has increased, if anything, in what I do and think and find and explore. That's how I "relate to and experience" as I wander in the Garden of Forking Paths.
But one notices that others of the Cohort of 1943 (+ or - maybe 2 years) are encountering difficulties, or anticipating challenges, and generally attending to the message of the still-Distant Niagara more than I am so far. And we hear that an old friend (who was our Best Man) died, obit in the New York Times... Cue Sherwin Nuland, Atul Gawande, Siddhartha Mukherjee who write so eloquently of Endgame.
I notice that there's something so HOPEFUL in texts written only a few years ago, something that doesn't accord very clearly with the world of November 2022, when everywhere we look we find some tendril of the Polycrisis that looms over the world we thought we knew. In the last 3 years it feels to me like EVERYTHING out there has changed, dis-integrated, fallen into desuetude ...except in my own personal bubble of ease and comfort and material plenitude. And that bubble is of course mayfly-like, but no less joyful for that. In the classic words of Mehitabel the Cat, "toujours gai".
I'm more attracted to the world(s) of the past than to what I observe of the present or anticipate in the near future. The far future seems of less and less importance, since I won't be here to experience it and be able to say "I told you so!" to my contemporaries.
Sunday 6xi22, surfing the temporal derangement of the end of Daylight Saving, which got me up at 4:30...
...and thinking further about ways in which one is entrained in Time, I note that Time figures pretty prominently in my reading. At the moment I'm in the middle of
- Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human, which follows the history of two centuries of discovery of the cell as an actor, "the unit of life", and the "reframing of the human body as a cellular ecosystem" and the "cellular engineering" at the forefront of emerging medical understanding and practice (T cells, stem cell transplants, etc.)
- Michael Denning's Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution, which follows the global consequences of the introduction of electronic recording in the mid-1920s, visiting the archipelago of "musical cultures of the colonial ports", locales which came to prominence as socio-cultural melting pots because of the steamship, and from which new musical forms were spawned: tango, fado, rembetika, calypso, palm wine music, 'gypsy' guitar, slack-key, kronkong, jazz, blues, etc. etc. —an evolution I've been engaged with for 50+ years.
And then there are the aspects of life-in-time that seem to be changing out from under us so rapidly that only fast footwork can keep us upright. There are many instances, but Twitter is the case-in-point of the moment, for which I'll quote Rob Horning (whom I read thanks to today's Warren Ellis blog post):As much as I still rely on Twitter for a sense of what is being discussed, the site had also trained me to think of the whole practice as cynical and corrupt, something that could only persist in a commercially incentivized form (it's all hustling and self-promotion, all performing opinions) or as a bad habit with its own established momentum. I felt compelled to check Twitter because it felt like an easy way to be social without being social, but it came to feel embarrassing, as though eavesdropping were the only way to interact... Why did it ever seem important to share links and add editorializing comments to them? What did I get out of pontificating to no one in particular, other than the occasional reward of equally abstract attention metrics? Did I really once make friends that way? Why would anyone "follow" me now, especially since I have no idea where I am going?...which reminds me how recent all of this is, how "communication" has been changed and commodified by electronic innovations in which we've all been swept along, toward that Niagara.
One of our family is caught up in this particular drama-of-the-moment: nephew Jonathan Root is "still" employed at Twitter, but doing who knows what today, let alone tomorrow. For him, Time must have some pretty scary dimensions—not a good time to be looking for a different job in the Industry, at age 57...
And another hyper-temporal issue of the moment is what will happen on Tuesday and the days that follow, and how it's likely to be a watershed for "our democracy". It looks very much like the mean kids are about to take over our country and up the ante of nastiness and rancor.
On the other hand, Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder's Reflections on Mothering in the Apocalypse (just in from Emergence Magazine) deals gently with generational time.Every morning she wakes to greet a world that greets her back. She takes it all in with generous attention and curiosity. She is startled, she is awed, she is frightened, she is patient. There is a fluidity to the boundaries of her being. She is a willing pupil of a world that, in every moment, rises anew to meet her....
In a Western capitalist culture that feels so irreversibly conditioned to its own internal logic, its own seemingly unstoppable momentum, its own ego, its own monied tongue—all of which have wrapped their threads around me, too—I can hardly believe that thirty feet away from me in the other room, beneath the rain that runs down the roof, is a human being who is currently free of this conditioning. I wonder how, as a mother, I can nurture this freedom...
So many of the stories we hear today are about a world falling out of being. Falling away. Falling from grace. Twenty-three more species declared extinct. Floods and fires. Vanishing topsoil. Climate refugees. These are stories of the mass-scale unraveling that is taking place as we pull more and more threads out of the Earth's great pattern to weave something that is entirely of our own making, an image that reflects only ourselves. We continue this hungry work even as the stunted design we are creating spells our own demise.
These may have some contribution to considering Time:Alignements at Carnac and Truck Graveyard
Stephen Jay Gould writes of Evolution (that's big-time Time) as punctuated, having "isolated episodes of rapid speciation", and specifically of cladogenesis, a "process by which a species splits into two distinct species, rather than one species gradually transforming into another." It occurs to me that our experience of time is punctuated in a different sense: we each have a unique history of *important moments, *forking paths-in-time, *speed-up/slow-down, *drawn in or breaking out, *watersheds, *crescendo/diminuendo (*and probably others). The full panoply of punctuation extends well beyond
? , ; : – — . ¶ ... ! "
but the agile mind will imagine instances of each of the above in our Narratives of lives-lived. And one thinks of Victor Borge's (1909-2000) marvelous performance:
And this may or may not be relevant to considerations of Time, but it just wandered in and wants to be rediffused:When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah . The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains, and the SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds. So, a major Space Shuttle design feature, of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system, was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's ass. And you thought being a horse's ass wasn't important? Ancient horse's asses control almost everything.
(via Andrew Kissinger, by way of Adam Tooze)
And if ever there was a User Manual for "relating to and experiencing aging", it's Raymond Briggs' last book, Time For Lights Out, equal parts poignant, prescient, and, well, Prodnose
Here's one that's not too bathetic, but captures realities we've all observed or experienced:
A Popular Game for All ages
This little flat of yours is fine for us now,
but if we ever had a baby...
Yes, it's still just about all right,
but when she starts toddling about...
It's really impossible here!
They need a garden to play in—
swing, sandpit, paddling pool...
At last! We can get them outside.
But we'll need another bedroom soon.
It's difficult with them sharing that tiny room.
We'll have to move.
Bigger house - four beds if poss.
Then I can get down to some serious gardening—
vegetables, greenhouse, pond, fruit trees... Bliss!
We'd better build on, if we can afford it!
Ideally, they should all have a room each,
with A-levels coming up.
The house seems so empty, so quiet.
I come in from work, close the front door,
and there's silence.
Not a sound. Not a soul.
This place is far too big for us.
Expensive to maintain and, quite honestly,
the garden is a bit of a burden.
We really need somewhere smaller—
less housework, less decorating.
I've had my fill of DIY,
and the garden is just impossible.
little patio garden ...
Near the shops. That's us!
Don't like driving these days.
Now I'm on my own, I don't need all this.
Least of all, a blessed garden!
A little one-bed flat would suit me fine,
like I had when I started out.
Can't get up the stairs now.
Locked myself out the other day!
Then when the stupid kitchen curtains
caught fire, I fell over and broke my wrist.
They say they'll find somewhere for me.
Nothing grand. Nice warm room.
Three meals a day. No shopping,
no cooking, no housework, no gardening,
Tuesday 8xi 2022
During the last couple of days I've been gathering material on OUR Time, thinking especially of the Class of 1943 as a specific cohort, and of the influences that define the world we have known. The elephant in this particular room is the dawn of the Atomic Age, which broke just as we were being born, and has greatly influenced us all our lives. For me there are lots of fragments to assemble: Alice and Wick were at Los Alamos in 1945-1946; just down the street in Cambridge was Harvard's cyclotron; Betsy was for almost 10 years the Editor of W&L's ALSOS Project (an online bibliography of Nuclear Issues); and among my earliest musical memories is The Sons of the Pioneers "Old Man Atom". ...Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Alamogordo, Bikini... echoed in my mind for a couple of days until I remembered the title of the song, and of course found it easily via YouTube:
The Atomic Platters site ("Cold War music from the Golden Age of Homeland Security") reminds me of others, like Slim Gaillard"s "Atomic Cocktail":
The Louvin Brothers were unknown to me in the early 1950s, but their "Great Atomic Power" moved the same message across the AM radio airwaves:
Tom Lehrer made it all such fun:
And the 1982 documentary "AtomicCafé" is essential viewing, even 40 years later:
I've also been reading a book which narrates the reminiscences of 30 of our Harvard classmates, Born into a World at War. Nancy Chodorow sums things up eloquently:We were not born during postwar prosperity to united families with optimistic parents. In all cases we were born to families in which parents were directly or indirectly affected by war...
For many of us there was a general cultural atmosphere of anxiety and fear about the present and future. Before we could speak, these were the affective messages communicated by our parents... (pg 302)
Time is surely punctuated by Events that then turn out to be watersheds, when "everything" changes. James Burke was a masterful presenter of consequences of innovations, and thus of thinking about ramifications: an innovation has a cascading effect as it spreads, and people adapt to changed circumstances. You see that everywhere you look.
Our Time has seen a lot of universe-changing events and emergent processes, which have greatly affected pretty much everything about how we see/comprehend the world and our place in it. It's interesting how quickly we take for granted such life-altering innovations, such as the Looking Glass presentation of 'the computer', with its sound and video, and the imaginary/virtual communities it offers; likewise the cell phone as a ubiquitous and ever-more-essential communication device. 20 years ago all that was still in its infancy, and the gods alone know what's next...
Philomena Cunk Moments of Wonder Episode 1: Time:
Still unaddressed is Time in the perspective of photography, and since it's been one of my primary focuses of attention and practice for umpty years and counting, it wants some space here. One essence of photography is the capture of moments in a frame chosen by the photographer; another is that the viewer of a photograph has the opportunity of vicarious experience of locale and moment, and thus a means to look back in time, into the lives and experiences of people who have Departed. I've never analyzed my photobook library (or my collections of images) with this temporal perspective at the center of attention, but I do have a lot of books that make historical presentations of images, and many of those purport to offer some implicit analysis of the times and people in the photographs. I'll mention a few examples, but so many other books languish on my shelves, wondering why they haven't been included...
The most recent addition to my hoard is Ken Burns' Our America: A Photographic History, which arrived a few days ago. It's a marvel in many ways, in part because its presentation is chronological (in the period 1839-2019), and for what Ken Burns himself says of his intentions:...I began a nearly 50 year journey of exploration into the deceptively simple question "Who are we?"—that is to say, who are these strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans? What can an investigation of the past tell us not only about that past moment, but also about where we are today, and, perhaps most important, where we might be going? It was an emotional archaeology I would attempt, not just excavating the dry dates and facts and events of the past, but also searching for some higher emotional meaning that makes the shards of all that cold data somehow cohere...
I've chosen 10 photographs from the book as representative of the power of photographic images to make us attend to Time by focusing attention on what an image means, how it is implicated in our own lives and in building our understanding of how we got here. Any other 10 might have been as clear illustrations of those points. Have a look, and consider...
Fort Snelling, Minnesota 1864
Carlisle, Pennsylvania ca. 1884
Indian School Project
"The object of the whites is to crush the Indians down to nothing,"
he said to the Secretary of the Interior, Jacob Cox
New York City 1917
Washington DC 1948
On May 20, 1948, George Gillette, chairman of the business council at the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota,
wept as he watched Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug authorize the forced sale of reservation lands
to make way for the construction of the Garrison Dam.
The reservation was home to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes,
given to them in a treaty with the government in 1851...
New Orleans, Louisiana 1960
Memphis, Tennessee 1968