State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
Oh the memories. Look at this grand old photo. Once upon a time! Me clutching a baseball glove! Under that sweet baseball cap there was hair all over my head, I can promise you that. I remember it well. Me and Maurice Chevalier. One other thing. “Time is fleeting.” “Time is infinitely precious.” Yeah, I get it. The value of a commodity increases inversely with its supply where demand is constant, making our earthbound collection of infinitely precious moments a treasure chest—one whose value we don’t begin to apprehend until our knees are hidden by a coverlet and all is a piercing memory. Whew! I get that, okay?
But how can a day or a minute be ‘infinitely precious’ according to these intuitive laws of scarcity, when the only mechanism we’re given to take All This in doesn’t bother to mark the singular seconds?
“This is gonna hurt, an’ this is gonna burn, an’ this is gonna sting”, he said to me levelly, eye to eye, in the pleasant burr of the deep south’s professional class.
The seconds fly by like bothersome gnats around a campfire! If you live to 90 you’ll be working through your allotted 2,846,016,000 seconds in a preoccupied haze through which you’ll see yourself tying shoes, filling out forms, eating saltines, flinging coffee at mouthy strangers, and otherwise partaking—fairly unconsciously—of Life’s Rich Pageant™. We can actually be seen to swat at the seconds in annoyance when we notice them at all! “Why is this taking so long!”
River? Arrow? Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off
Shouldn’t something as irretrievable as a Living Second have something like a cosmic cowbell attached to it? Shouldn’t we have been given the mechanism to know the passing of the seconds, to truly feel their gravity? So that life saunters loudly by in a clanging, migraine-producing cacophony of awareness? [Maybe not] The fact remains: though each individual second is as pinprick-translucent and transitory as a gnat, in the aggregate these crowded seconds are grouped marauders quietly gathering their forces, each unchecked Second edging its way past the distracted sentry tower to join its secret idiot army behind the lines.
Sure—time is a River, but without the pastoral setting, murmur of water, leaping rainbow-tinted fish; without the birdsong or polished pebbles, without the grazing moose and striding, indistinct Sasquatch. Time is a river without a larger osmotic body into which gravity or some other incomprehensible force obliges it to empty. So where is it going? Ask Arthur Eddington. He’ll tell you that time is also an arrow, and one that yet befuddles general physics. Eddington is the smirking bespectacled guy (okay, and astronomer) who came up with the term “Time’s Arrow” to describe, in filigreed thermodynamic terms, the strangeness of time passing in only the one direction—forward.
Eddington is at pains to point out that the helpless, headlong, forward-racing direction of time makes no actual sense, however intuitive time’s forward motion necessarily is to we emergent prisoners of its effects. To hear Eddington tell it, physical phenomena at the quantum level are thought to be time-symmetric.
This means that at that scale, the direction of time could go either way—forwards or backwards, without having any effect on the theoretical nuts and bolts that describe reality. But up here at the stick-in-the-mud macroscopic scale, that simply isn’t the case. Time only goes forward (to put it as gently as possible). That the forward lunge of time is a curiosity may strike some as unusual. “We really have to wonder at the direction of time?” Yes. Eddington himself noted that his Arrow of Time “…has no analog in space”. What’s it all about, Alfie?
The Dumb Mystery of the Changing Vessel
If you’re not within earshot of a cheap wall clock with a cardboard face (talking about the clock’s face here) ticking away on battery power, the seconds move by unremarked. The precious seconds! I have a dreamlike memory, I always consider it my earliest, of riding a hobby horse down a steep staircase and landing like wounded laundry at the bottom, a crash attended by much abstract and imperfectly reconstructed commotion. I also recall being held by my father and throwing up demurely on the shoulder of his gray and white and red sweater. That doesn’t seem terribly long ago. And now this?
Am I the same person? The Same Thing? These are odd yet familiar questions as childhood recedes and daily reality begins to go mildly haywire.I measure my Self against the scar on my knee, which I sliced open in 1968, 20 yards off the coast of Treasure Island, Florida. A gentle, tourist-friendly swell in the crystalline Gulf of Mexico nudged me playfully into a breakwater whose barnacles constituted a many-faceted razor, and my knee came open like an unzipped costume.
The emergency room doctor—the one I desperately tried to convince my mom was unnecessary—gave me a warning before the deadening syringe was jabbed brutally into the open rip in my knee. I have always remembered his tryptic of pain, as he described what I could expect.
“This is gonna hurt, an’ this is gonna burn, an’ this is gonna sting”, he said to me levelly, eye to eye, in the pleasant burr of the deep south’s professional class, and through frightening Buddy Holly glasses.
Hurt, burn, sting. I have never forgotten that. You’ll notice it handily covers, like the quickly and perfectly rendered da Vinci circle, an essential truth. I also have a ragged scar on my left thumb which I only rediscovered five or so years ago, confirming, as do the startled pilgrims in Hitchcock movies, that what I had thought was an antediluvian shadow-scrap of dream was in fact a happenstance; a car door slammed by me on my own fool toddler thumb, so hurried was I to join a little schoolfriend I’d suddenly spied on the playground. On her tricycle. I remember that. My mom shouting at me, a psycho puddle of vivid blood. The scar records it. I’m looking at it now.
Call it The Dumb Mystery of the Changing Vessel. Get as old and crazy as you want. Throw up on the caregiver, lavishly crap your diaper, horrify the busboy with a napkin-ruffling gust of methane you don’t even know you’ve loosed, walk slowly out of The Home in a cowboy hat, naked from the waist down, fists on hips and hollering a showtune. That scar on your left thumb still tells of the time you were a kid and wanted to run on your well-oiled kid knees to your little kid friend on her trike. The event seems in remembering to be at the other end of a darkling tunnel, but it’s right next to you in plain sunlight. That is You. You hurt your thumb approximately yesterday.
The Right Fork, The Big L, and Being Groovy
The moments are what we make of them; and Love is a shopworn term that nevertheless begs our brief attention in this context. Your 90-year eyeblink should, on balance, be threaded through with the Big L, which may be as fundamental as consciousness, neutrinos, and the Noble Gases; as basic to our existence as the Singularity.
It’s just too bad it’s called “Love”. Still, how easily people fall into disrepair for want of it, or are too hurried to grasp it. We get ONE of these trips across the living surface of the Earth, and for reasons unknown the seconds all go in one direction. So keep an eye on those seconds. Watch them approach and inhabit them on arrival. Take. Your. Time. As a short guy with a tall best friend once said—slow down, you move too fast; you got to make the morning last.