Being on Time
Yogi Berra wasn’t just a great baseball player; but also a master of unconscious tautology (“It ain’t over till it’s over”). The story goes that a player once asked him what time it was, and Yogi answered, “What, you mean now?” Now is always the correct answer. The science of time begins, I suppose, with Sir Isaac Newton, who said that time was immutable throughout the universe, and the same for everyone. Enter clock time, about which I have more to say later. Towns all measured noon by when the sun was highest, which meant when trains came along, there a lot of wrecks due to time differentials.
In the early 1900s there were a slew of patent applications for accurate time keeping devices so everyone could be synchronized. One of the Swiss patent clerks who had to pour through all these applications was Albert Einstein, who began asking himself questions about time. He would go on to show that time and space are inextricably entwined, and that motion through space affects the passage of time. We call it spacetime now. Basically, if you’re moving, time passes more slowly, not for you, but for someone observing at rest. The difference is barely measurable, though, till you approach the speed of light. One thing would seem certain; the “arrow of time” is a one-way street, from past to present to future. On the other hand, many a physicist can tell us there’s nothing in the laws of physics that would prevent time from going backward. After all, we can move backward or forward in space. The late great George Carlin had a bit where he thought it would be better if time did run backwards. You’d begin elderly and infirm, and get younger all the time, and end in the best possible way, with a big orgasm. Or take this little snippet from Lewis Carroll:
Alice: I can’t remember things before they happen.
The Queen: It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.
Well, as they say, it’s all relative. I’m much more interested in how we perceive time, which differs from person to person and depending on the circumstance. If you’re listening to a boring lecture, time seems to crawl along, but if you’re with a hot date at a concert, “time flies.” Speaking for myself, four months of Donald Trump feels like four years of Nixon, maybe because things are happening so much faster. Some great minds have spoken on the issue. Hannah Arendt is known chiefly by her seminal book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. But in another book, The Life of the Mind, she says that it is our “limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change . . . into time as we know it.” Jacques Luis Borges thought time was the foundation of our experience of personal identity, and that it is inseparable from matter, spirit, and space. I especially liked what C.S. Lewis wrote: “Humans are amphibians — half spirit and half animal. As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time.” And singer/songwriter/author Patti Smith asks an intriguing question: “If I write about the past as I simultaneously dwell in the present, am I still in real time?
In a show devoted to the subject, NPR’s “Radio Lab” interviewed athletes about their perception of time. A sprinter said once the gun goes off, running seemed like slow motion. I can add my own experience as a distance runner. It’s almost as if time didn’t exist (even though every runner is timed to the hundredth of a second). A high jumper said when she’s clearing the bar, time seems to stand still. Baseball players at the plate have claimed to be able to see the ball in slow motion. The famed slugger Ted Williams said he could see the stitches on the ball as it came near. Again, from personal experience, marijuana slows down the sense of time passing. When I was in my hippie days, many years ago, I did a lot of finger-picking on guitar. I liked doing speed, or amphetamines, because speeding gave me so much time to get to each string I needed to pluck. I had to give up on speed though; the crash just wasn’t worth it. It does appear that the perception of the passage of time varies according to our experience. What about other animals? Does a turtle perceive time passing in the same way as a hummingbird? Some butterflies are born without digestive systems. They live only a few days, just long enough to mate. Do they experience a whole lifetime in so short (to us) a period? What about our plant friends? They keep track of time, too, by noting the changes in light and temperature, and the change of seasons.
Hopefully you’ve seen the 1990 film “Awakenings,” about a doctor working with catatonic patients (Robert DeNiro was one). The doctor, so ably played by Robin Williams, was Oliver Sacks, a neurologist fascinated by patients who seemed “frozen.” In his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” he tells of a patient named Myron. Over a couple hours, he would move one hand up, touch his nose, and return the hand to its original position. Twenty photos were made of it, and assembled into a flip book. When they showed it to Myron, he was “thunderstuck.” In his perception of time, he had merely reached up to scratch his nose, an action that only took a couple seconds. I’m somewhat skeptical of this account, however. If Myron perceived time at such a slow rate, wouldn’t normal speech sound speeded up, and wouldn’t people coming and going seem to flit around like our hummingbird? Sadly, Dr. Sacks left us last year.
However intriguing all these speculations may be, the fact appears to be that all we really have is now. That brings me to clock time, which always measures now. It’s a convenient way of measuring time that we all agreed to — or were coerced into accepting — so that we can get where we’re going “on time.” Greenwich Mean Time became UTC — Universal Time Coordinated. Today the ultimate is the atomic clock in Colorado, which measures in microseconds, using decaying Cesium atoms. The system seems a little regimented and militaristic, if you ask me; like a tyranny. Alan Watts warns: “If you are bewitched by the clock you will therefore have no present. ‘Now’ will be no more than the geometrical point at which the future becomes the past.” That’s a good warning against being a slave to clock time. He goes on to say that biological time is more rhythmic, swinging process. It’s antithetical to clack time, because it has its own flow.
It’s odd, the many expressions having to do with time. We speak of passing or filling time, there being no time to lose, killing time, losing time, wasting time, all the time, time after time, biding one’s time, as time goes by, and let’s not leave out the capitalist motto: time is money. We may speak of someone living in the past, but physics doesn’t seem to allow it. I could go on and on, but time doesn’t permit.
Anyway, the jury seems to be in, and it’s comforting to see Western science merging with thousands of years of Eastern philosophy: now is all we’ve got. Again, I refer to Alan Watts: “Actually, time is an illusion, because the only real time, if I may so call it, is the present. The past does not exist except as a memory, the future isn’t here at all. And all our knowledge of the future consists of guesses based on the past.”
Mel Brooks has a brilliant scene in his less than brilliant film, “Spaceballs.” The Empire ship is chasing the rebels, watching through a monitor, when suddenly the screen shows that strange trick when you’re between mirrors, and reflections of you recede into infinity:
“Dark Helmet: What the hell am I looking at? When does this happen in the movie?
Colonel Sandurz: Now. You’re looking at now, sir. Everything that happens now, is happening now.
Dark. Helmet: What happened to then?
Colonel Sandurz: We passed then.
Dark Helmet: When?
Colonel Sandurz: Just now. We’re at now now.”
Precisely. Forty years ago the beat poets and philosophers were talking about living in the now, something the Buddhists strive for. I read the excellent Be Here Now, by Ram Dass, in the 1970s. Today we call it mindfulness, but it’s still the same. The present is all we’ve really got, and yet it slips through our fingers like sand.
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me. — William Shakespeare, Richard II