Clocks [excerpt]

“Jackie, that’s my daughter’s name. She just left for college in Europe. Wasn’t half a decade before we were best buddies, her in middle school, me working 20 hour weeks. That’s the time every kid starts to beat her dad at everything. Always been giving her sports to play and riddles to solve. First to the top of the tree, fastest to eat a hamburger, how much wood can a woodchuck chuck… or like this one I made up, as we sat watching the San Antonio River outside our house back in Floresville:

“Hey, Jackie. You see that shadow of the tree on the water? Is the shadow moving?”

Jackie smiled. “Of course not! The river is moving, but the shadow isn’t. Easy trick question.” She threw a pebble into the river, and it passed right through the tree trunk.

I smiled back. “Wrong. It is moving. Because the sun is moving. All shadows move, just very slowly.”

Jackie’s smile changed into a sneer. “That was a trick-trick question.”

Teenagers hate being trick-tricked. Especially when the trick is slowness, since as far as she was concerned the world wasn’t spinning fast enough. Soon enough the time came that she started solving my riddles, throwing the football farther, eating more hamburgers.

We set up an obstacle course in the yard with tires, ladders, and took turns completing it as fast as possible, while the other timed with my wristwatch. Jackie went first and finished it in 55 seconds. Then I went. I stumbled to the finish, touching the wall of our house and nearly smashing a hole in it.

“Geez Louise!”

“56 seconds!” Jackie yelped.

“Wait,” I huffed. “That can’t be. I was counting in my head, I got 55.”

“No. I got the watch. I was counting ticks, and I got 56 ticks.”

Well, here was an old man’s moment to prove he was still smarter than his kid.

“That’s wrong, Jac. A second is the amount of time in between ticks. So if you counted 56 ticks, that means 55 seconds.”

“No, you’re wrong, dad. The seconds are the ticks!”

“What, you think that a second is the amount of time it takes for the hand to jump from one tick to the next? Those don’t matter. We count the pauses in between those, in between the jumps.”

But she wasn’t hearing me. “It’s the total opposite! A second is the time it takes the hand to jump from one tick to the next.”

“Come on, Jackie, you know that’s not true. Look for yourself.” I showed her the watch.

“Yeah! One, two, three… that’s the seconds! You’re just being a sore loser.”

We went back and forth for another five minutes. She went inside. Normally she’d come around by dinnertime, but this one got her goat for the rest of they day. Next thing I knew she started high school, outside town, came home every day with hours of homework, weekends she spent with new friends, boyfriends, then summer camps. That was really the last summer we spent together. Though I’m sure she forgot that argument completely, I still shouldn’t’ve used the word true with her.

When she left I suddenly had so much free time I thought the world stopped spinning. Surely your folks had the same, huh? What’s a man like me to do, aside from take a trip somewhere? Came here, sent my ex-wife an email, tried to see if she still lived here. But she never answered. One day my legs couldn’t take the walking no more and I just collapsed onto a bench in front of a church. There was a park behind me and kids were playin’. Above the entry to the church, where you normally got a stained glass window, there was a big round carving, of one of those Aztec Gods. Body of a snake, head of a man, wrapped in a spiral, and the scales of the snake body had letters or numbers next to ‘em. In the middle of the spiral there was a metal rod stickin’ straight out. Then outta nowhere a man walks up to me holding a plastic chain and starts to talkin’ in Spanish about some trick he was gonna do, and raising his eyebrows at me, and I had to tell him no thank you ‘bout five times before he left. I fell asleep for a while. When I woke up I had no idea what time it was, till I looked up at the church. The shadow of the metal rod had moved from one scale on the snake body to another. By God, I realized I was lookin’ at a sundial. That’s when I realized that Jackie was right. We were both right. Some clocks got jumpin’ hands, and a second is the pause between jumps, but some clocks got smooth movin’ hands, like that sundial, and a second is the slow jump from one tick to the next. A second is the jump.


Finish what I farted

Several years ago, for Rod Knox’s seminar on daydreaming, I wrote a short story called I&M— a dialogue between two unnammed characters, about philosophical questions, inspired by Before Sunrise. This is how it started.

I: So, what’s new with you?
M: Many things. Actually, it’s lucky I bumped into you, because I’ve been thinking about love…
I: Oh, boy. Let me say first, make sure you’re thinking of love the right way. I strongly dislike when people misuse words. Aggravate, naïve, random
M: …and love, yes. Some people don’t know love when it’s staring them in the face. It’s the most frustrating type of misuse to me, because in its case it gets devalued. Mostly, thinking of the big picture, it’s the evolution of a word that causes meaning to shift. But in the case of words like love, the meaning hasn’t shifted as much as it’s simply become diluted. For me, that’s a dead-end path to extinction.
I: Sure—but nowadays I equate it closer with a kind of voluntary ignorance. Instead of engaging words and language more intensely, the average person is allowed to get by on the shallowest possible thinking. We are so fearful of solitude, of having to encounter our own thoughts and put aside thinking about our appearance for even a moment. Tarkovsky once said it’s important to learn to take pleasure in finding oneself in solitude. It teaches patience.
M: Keep silence. Silence cannot be kept; it is indifferent with respect to the work of art which would claim to respect it—
I: Blanchot?

M: Yep. 

All I can think of when I read this now is: “how exhausting.” Imagine 1000 more words of that.
In the spirit of the solipsistic theme of the class, and of my laziness, I didn’t properly end it. Just cut it off like a punk rock song. Then, a year later, I decided to finish it… somehow:

M: Meaning is a human invention. Like we already said, we need to empathize with animals. They have no concept of right and wrong, good and evil. When one is truly at one with the universe, the point becomes not to question or even to understand the meaning of things, but instead to accept them as they are and have that existence be the only justification required. Meaning is a conclusion of thought, the destination that we deem sufficient to understand something.
I: Once again it’s the case of the conquest of language.
M: And again the universe looks very dull by comparison. Life is a phenomenon all its own. When homo erectus first became aware of his being alive…
I: That must have been the first thought. When man got up off his fours, everything changed. These two thumbs meant not only freedom of movement, it also meant freedom of thinking. They slowly began meditating on the world, then reframing their thoughts from thousands of angles. Then eventually the time-bomb detonated, a dormant perception lit up from the back of their mind, they picked up a stone, and began drawing their world on the dim cave walls.
M: Are you writing all this down? That’s funny.
I: Listen, I have to get going. But it was good to bump into you. I’m glad we chatted.
M: Can we meet again?

It sounds nothing like how I write now. Partially it was the dreary setting of a graduate-level seminar that brought out the petulant philosophy major in me. And yet, I can’t fault the premise for anything. The pieces have floated for years now, and I feel the need to finish what I farted, rub this thing on the forehead until it starts to burnish a tad. The challenge is: I have to speak that old tongue. The story has to be finished with its own voice, as much as I want to slap that voice across the face and tell it to wake up.
It’s getting to be more like Before Sunrise than I thought. I have to collapse time. I have to stitch the ending to the beginning, with words that no longer come to me naturally.
How often does this happen?


Books and Bosons

In applause of Peter Higgs, and the legacy of over 5 decades of research– I will attempt to outline another implication for the (near-certain) discovery of the god particle.
The relationship of matter to mass. How does former attain latter? In the case of particle physics, it’s by moving through the Higgs field. In the case of thoughts and information, it’s through language [beneath which I cram all literature, art, speech, media, etc.]. In order for thoughts to attain mass, they need to be (to the regret of some) slowed, downgraded, passed through the Higgs Field equivalent, and given shape by some communicable medium. This is in itself a profound step.
Charlotte was vexed by my conclusive point in Figuration to Abstraction— that humans may soon evolve out of language. Where will all the magic of communication go? The core joy of art and literature, she says, (the following metaphor is hers; I fittingly couldn’t come up with a better one) is the friction of ideas against language; of the originally articulated thought against its conveyance and the perceptive cortexes of its recipients. The heat arising from this friction is fertile and volatile– her favorite moments are born upon the discovery of unexpected meanings through miscommunication. From a strictly technical point of view, the challenge is finding in language the perfect match for your thoughts. (Now my metaphor. Dumber.) It is going shopping for a word. The perfect word to match your thought is like the perfect shoe or dress. In fact, that one can never find a perfect match because the two are of a different nature serves to give thoughts even more meaning. There is something behind every painting, every critical essay, that simply cannot be communicated no matter how you articulate yourself. That something is the original thought. We both are trying to give form to something inherently formless, and which should structurally remain so if we are to proceed with our lives in any coherent way– we keep the ghost, the expelled language-heat, at arm’s length on purpose.
Thus, all that stuff we love is really just residue of the cosmic thought-soup. This is further emphasized by the fact that, like CERN says, the universe is defined less by the planets and stars and chunks of matter than by the void surrounding them. What does this imply? It implies that the language around us is really an illusory blip on the radar of thoughts. If thoughts are the universe, language is the light-matter. Dark matter equates the realm of dreams, ideas, feelings, emotions, memories, regrets, hopes, opinions, instincts– all that which has not yet congealed. This has repercussion both in past and future thoughts: most of us have probably been thinking about thoughts unrealized; before the fact. But just as interesting are thoughts that were once turned into art but have since dissolved. The number of these may be far greater than initially imagined. Stuart Kelly wrinkles these waters in The Book of Lost Books.
“Hence, perpetually and essentially, texts run the risk of becoming definitively lost. Who will ever know of such disappearances?” -Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy”.
A delightful read. But after meandering through its passages I was overrun by the dreadful sense that life and all its exigencies is a failed struggle against the relentless tide of our disintegration into that dark soup.
Time itself may be such a struggling element. Time seems to be a rupture in the perfect balance of all things, the tendency for all matter to equalize and dissolve like sugar in water. As we are learning, time is anything but constant and is in fact a function of relationships. The reason time appears as it does to us (passing, flowing through everything like a breeze) is because the speed at which we move compared to the speed at which light and the edges of the universe move is a fairly fixed ratio. Speed up, halve the ratio, and things start to change…. Same thing in reverse. All that would happen is the discovery of new patterns in things close to you to help exercise that part of the brain which maintains that despite the building evidence, the illusion is real and discrete things can be sorted and organized. Not that everything is everything, but that there is permanent difference. And with that illusion in closer focus, so do answers to questions beginning with “why” appear simpler to reach.

Subliminal 9-11, the curious explanation of why I don’t wear watches

A story, this time:

I discovered very intimate evidence that our brains are always aware of the time– and not just by casts of a net or any such wide margins, but down to the very minute. And it is only exhaustively heightened by images. In this peculiar case it was an instance of realizing something that had been present all along as opposed to an uncovering. The former turns out to be more haunting, and, of course, more interesting to analyze in retrospect.
One Saturday I happened in on my parents re-watching an episode of Columbo, Double Exposure, from 1973. In this one, the murderer manipulates his victim with clever use of subliminal cuts placed in a short film– single frames which the eye detects but does not consciously process, in other words, that one does not “see” (thus confirming our long-held suspicion of advertisements). The whole premise is rather nebulous, but we entertain the horror of it just to allow Columbo one more thing.
I had sat down, engrossed. But by pure coincidence (or was it) I realized it was after 9pm and I had to go. Exactly 11 minutes after 9. (My father loves being dramatic, and pretends to freak out every time he sees the clock read that for the past decade.) With thoughts of subliminal cuts still fresh on my mind, I thought there had to be something related between them and the seemingly increased amount of times the clock says 9:11 whenever I check it. It’s strange, after all, that a number that 15 years ago was fairly arbitrary (“nine-eleven,” as opposed to “nine-one-one”), should in any way become less objectively arbitrary and actually increase in gravitational pull, as it were, towards it, after some incident. The explanation for that would be fairly clear: it’s not to do with the number itself, but the amount of times it’s been printed and spoken (and thus– read, seen, and heard) since then. I wish it were easier to dig up, but surely there must be some statistics on the number of times “9/11” has been mentioned or printed by the media since that day.

Since then, those three numbers and four syllables have become so charged that merely uttering them opens up a whole series of unconscious responses in our brains. And this is where I make a bold assumption: I think our brains try and force us to bring those responses. Why? Perhaps our minds will do anything to feel more at one with the world around us (that is– having stimuli to react to). Or maybe it carries a unifying spirit, a combination of anger and camaraderie that binds some of us together and paints others as enemies. A quasi-religious, wholly human trait. To make sense of the world, we need friends and enemies. We create good and bad, right and wrong, to guide us. So our brains use this simple tactic of somehow making us that bit more nervous, reminding us to check the time, in order to identify patterns and paint a picture, which speaks thousands of words to us, organizing and giving purpose to these isolated responses relative to a collective whole.
Surely the media has thought this through already….
It’s not hard for the brain to know what time it is. Forget the internal mechanism, I’m talking about down-to-the-minute accuracy. Think of all the places and times that two numbers with a colon in between occurs in your field of vision. Between waking up and sitting down at work, I see my bedside clock, my laptop screen, VCR, clock in the kitchen, New York 1, NPR, cell phone (about once every 5 minutes), microwave, church bell tower, train ticker, useful little news screen in my elevator, even my work telephone. Each display the time, and these are all within one hour. Of course my brain is going to know when 9:11 is. I also happens to fall right on one of the most stressful times of the day: the beginning. I realized, horrified, on the train platform, that even with the train display and the courteous robot PA voice, people still lean out to check for themselves if the next train REALLY IS far away and still out of sight. I couldn’t bear the stress of checking the time the second I emerge from the train station. What difference will it make? I’m going to walk the same distance at roughly the same speed anyway. I had to return to my Scandinavian roots: where some clocks are made that look like this:

The idea being that you don’t ever need to know EXACTLY what time it is, to the second. In fact, maybe even the minute hand is excessive. One need just to look at the clock and realize, “Oh, it’s time to eat.” or “Oh, it should be getting dark soon.” And here I had always wondered what those silly log clocks were for, with that one short hand that never seemed to move.

“Can you miss a plane by 5 seconds?”
The second hand is something of an invention, something we need just to indicate that time is passing.
This was all too much for me.
So I stopped wearing a watch.