“So as not to be the martyred slaves of time. . . “

howtheuniverseworks_artheadA funny story.

Twenty-ish years ago my psychiatrist in the Neurology Department of Harvard University Medical School decided he and several patients could benefit from a seminar on ending procrastination. One of those “life-changing” seminars such as play interminably on PBS during pledge campaigns. The psychiatrist intended to make reservations. Finally at about 5 PM the day before the seminar, he called and apologized for waiting until the last minute and asked if they had room for three or four more participants.

The woman in charge of reservations, he told me later, laughed and said, “Of course we do. We have almost no reservations. This IS a seminar in procrastination, after all.” Of course.

I forgot to go.

My psychiatrist’s patients were exclusively Temporal Lobe Epilepsy patients . . .

[If you read my blog, you’re tired of hearing about it. But, please, my writing yesterday was the beginning of writing about the gift I now understand TLE to be.]

. . .  which I have known at some level, since Dr. Donald Schomer gave me a name for it, is more a blessing than a curse.

I love “How the Universe Works” on the Discovery Chanel. 16,000,000,000 years ago. Physicists talk about quantum physics or parallel universes, ideas that boggle the mind. The Swiss Institute for Particle Physics and its atom-smashing machine. But my understanding of creation is stuck at laughing at Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory.”

But there’s something about thinking about time. Is time real? How do we know we’re not going backwards? Or that everything in the universe is happening at once in a zillionth of a second and it will be over before you read the next word?

TLEptics experience dissociation on a grand scale. Lasting for days. Weeks. We also have astonishing déjà vu experiences. I’ve lived entire days over in a second or two. And no one else has a clue what’s going on unless the TLEptic tells them. Most of us never do because it would seem we were frankly crazy.

Perhaps we were (are).

Or perhaps we have momentary flashes of experience of the passage of time the rest of you don’t get to have. What does it mean to

First Methodist Church, Omaha

First Methodist Church, Omaha

live a day again in a second? My neurologist says he can touch a certain place in my temporal lobe with an electrode (assuming I let him poke a hole in my skull) and give me as long a déjà vu experience as I want.

So what is time? Experience stored physically in the brain? And what time is it now? Who knows?

When I was in high school (we say “when” as if we are measuring “time” and some has passed since the experience we’re talking about—perhaps it hasn’t happened yet and I’m imagining it’s going to happen, or perhaps everything we know is happening all at once), I was a darling of the little old ladies (mostly younger than I am now), members of the American Guild of Organists in Omaha, NE.

The Guild met monthly at yet another church with some organist playing to show the capabilities of the organ. After a meeting at the First Methodist Church, I found a copy of J.S Bach’s The Little Organ Book on the organ bench. I brashly sat at the organ and played number 45, Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig!

Ah how fleeting,
ah how insubstantial is man’s life!
As a mist soon arises
and soon also vanishes again,
so is our life: see!

I played the little piece to the oohs-and-ahs! of the little old ladies. I’ve played it countless times [“times”] since, mostly at funerals with those congregations totally unaware of the appropriateness of the music.

A student in one of my classes would, by this point in her essay, have a comment from me to the effect, “What’s your point?” I would point out to her that she had not begun with a clear thesis, so her writing seems to have no point. So I’ll create a thesis right now [“now”]—or tell you what my point has been all along although you’d never guess it.

The passage of time may be a figment of our collective imagination. We have clocks, both analog and digital, to measure a “reality” that we cannot prove is real. I know this is one of those sophomoric twists college kids like to ponder and argue well into the night (as long as they have enough beer). I admit to being sophomoric.

Or. . .

I still play the Bach Ach wie flüchtig! I play it much more slowly than is normal (or than I played it to show off for the little old ladies). I like to hear all the notes in my old age. [You can listen to the Dutch organist Ton Koopman play it in the standard fashion here.]

Or perhaps I play much more slowly now because I think this is beginning to be the end of my life when in reality it’s the beginning. Or this very moment is eternity. Or we don’t exist at all. Or, if we do, we should be getting ready to die. Is that too startling, depressing for you? You should be a TLEptic. You’d have had a lifetime [“time”] to think about these things.

“Be Drunk,” by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
(translated by Louis Simpson)

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

The sweep of my [clock’s] hands

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Even though my first-year writing classes meet in a computer lab, and students do all of their writing electronically, I sometimes need to write notes for them on the white board.

This is problematic. Some of the students cannot read cursive script—because they can’t write cursive script. Their elementary schools did not teach them.

I spent hours in third grade honing the art of penmanship. My writing has devolved somewhat in the past few years. My control over some micro-movements of my hands has stiffened. But everyone my age can make at least an educated stab at writing a thank-you note by hand.``printing 009

Every semester I give my classes a quiz over the syllabus for several reasons. It makes the students responsible for knowing the class goals and guidelines (they can’t say to me, “But I didn’t know. . .”).  It gives me a snapshot of the students’ study habits. And it allows me to see who uses (and therefore can read) cursive writing. Almost none of them uses cursive writing on these quizzes. I ask about that, and it is—to me—shocking that more and more students say they have never been taught.

Like cursive writing, clocks with hands are becoming anomalies. Don’t let the Rolex commercials on PBS fool you. The only reason to wear a Rolex is to show you can afford a $15,000 watch. People who wear them certainly have all the electronic gizmos.

I don’t own an analog clock—except my watch (which is about as far from a Rolex as it’s possible to be). I wear a watch because I like to see the now time in relation to other times. I intensely dislike “digital” clocks.

People in twelve-step programs, and Buddhist gurus, and followers of Rumi, and all manner of well-meaning inspirational speakers advise us to learn to “live in the moment.” Well-meaning friends remind me often.

???????????????????????????????Everyone knows George Santayana’s famous adage (most often misquoted and always quoted out of context) from his Life of Reason, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Of much more interest to me is his assertion that “A man’s memory may almost become the art of continually varying and misrepresenting his past, according to his interests in the present.”

I think living “in the present” is impossible. The past is always one step back—and is always influencing the present moment. Santayana elaborates on our inability to live in the present because whatever we are doing at the moment, we have our memory, both short and long term, and

Even what we still think we remember will be remembered differently; so that a man’s memory may almost become the art of continually varying and misrepresenting his past, according to his interests in the present. . . .  Things truly wear those aspects to one another. A point of view and a special lighting are not distortions. They are conditions of vision, and spirit can see nothing not focused in some living age. (Santayana, George. Reasons and Places, Vol I., “The Background of My Life.” New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944.)

Writing by hand. Hands on clocks. Memory. “Conditions of vision.”

It seems to me that one of the results of the immanent loss of the ability to write by hand or to see and understand the movement of the hands of a clock is that we will lose the art of varying and misrepresenting our past according to our interests in the present. If we can no longer visualize the passage of time but are always trapped in a digital moment, we have no ability to absorb the past—even the immediate past—and make of it what we need in order to move to the future.

I don’t need to live in the past. But if I forget that standing on the toilet seat to put up a shower curtain is likely to end in a fall onto the bathtub, the next time I will most likely break my hip instead of simply crushing a few ligaments.

If all I know Is that it’s 7:57 instead of,
hand time 0
then all I can remember is three groups of seven LED bars, not that my arm is in process of writing or that those spots on my hand were not there ten years ago or that I can use my hands to communicate. I’ve lost something I love more than “living in the moment.” My “spirit can see nothing not focused in some living age.” The age spots on my hands and the imperfections in my script and the sweep of the dial of my watch help me remember that “Things truly wear [ ] aspects to one another.”