Slow to Travel

A family friend recently died.  I was in New York City when I received the news, and I mused how recent a phenomenon this speed of information is.  The news wasn’t necessarily a shock—this friend had been experiencing failing health, he was a close friend of my grandfather—but for some reason Samuel F. B. Morse came to mind.  The story goes that Morse invented the telegraph because of his experience of being away from home when his wife died.  By the time he received the news and was able to get home by the conveyance of the day, she’s already been buried.  He set his inventive mind to improving the speed of communication over a distance.  In these days of receiving texts mere seconds after something momentous happens, it’s difficult to imagine that for the vast majority of human existence, personal news traveled slowly.

Feeling in a reflective mood I recalled how when I was in college I wrote letters home.  Yes, the telephone existed by then—don’t be so cynical!—but long distance bore a cost and college students find ways to save their money for girlfriends or spending a weekend in Pittsburgh.  News traveled more slowly.  Back before Morse, the swiftest option was the letter.  The death of a friend might take days or weeks to reach those close.  Distance in time, as well as space, may not have lessened the shock, but the immediacy of a text wasn’t there.  The death had occurred days or weeks ago.  There was nothing left to do but grieve and get on with life.  Like Samuel Morse—perhaps the only point of comparison between us—I was unable to get away immediately.  New York City isn’t easy to escape quickly.

We move swiftly and slowly at the same time.  I know news moments from the event, but this physical mass I inhabit is sluggish takes some time to get around.  Manhattan’s an island, and although it’s not Styx we’re crossing, the Hudson creates barriers enough.  Now my journey includes crossing the entire state of New Jersey before I can even reach home.  Were I to drive back to my original home, it would add another five hours at least in the car.  Sometimes I wonder if the immediacy of knowing is a blessing or a curse.  The shock is immediate and visceral.  But like an injection, the sharpness is quickly over and the dull ache sets in.  Our family friend had been suffering for some time.  Now he’s at peace.  I like to think he’s with my granddad, and that the two of them together won’t judge me too harshly for moving so slowly.

On Time

Getting to the movie theater is not only costly, but increasingly difficult to schedule. This can be problematic for someone who likes to write about movies, but the realities of the commuting life aren’t very malleable. So it was that I finally had a chance to watch Arrival, on the small screen. It had been recommended, of course, and although it’s not horror it has aliens and a linguist as the hero—my kind of flick. Once it began, I wondered if religion would play any role in the story. Alien contact would certainly rate as one of the more formative religious events of all time. The only reference that was obvious, however, was the suicide cult shown on a news story in the background, immolating themselves as the aliens became known.

Louise Banks, a linguist who has security clearance, has a sad story. Spoiler alert here! If you’re even more tardy than me you might want to fire up Amazon Prime and read on afterward! The movie opens with her watching her daughter grow up, only to watch her succumb to a rare disease as a young woman. Then the aliens arrive and she’s whisked off to Montana to try to communicate with them. It’s only after repeated encounters, learning the written language of another race, that she asks who this little girl she keeps dreaming about is. The child is in her future. The aliens see time as cyclical, not linear, and by learning their language she begins to think like them—knowing the future holds a tragedy for her. The intensity of the experience makes her fall in love with Ian Donnelly, another academic, who will become the father of her child but who will leave when she reveals the future to him.

Just as the aliens prepare to leave, not religion but philosophy takes over. A question posed by none other than Nietzsche goes: if you could live your life over exactly the same as you lived it this time, would you? Nietzsche’s point was that those who say “no” deny life while those who answer in the affirmative, well, affirm it. Ian says what he would change. Louise, however, embraces life with the tragedy she knows will inevitably come. While religion is off in a corner doing something that shows just how nonsensical belief can be, philosophy stands tall and faces the difficult question head-on. Although the movie follows some expected conventions—aliens bring peace but militaries want war—it rests on a profound question to which, I’ll admit, I haven’t got an answer.

Time Killer

The internet, while it’s no longer free, still at least offers many opportunities to connect. No matter what your obscure passion, you’ll find others who share it online. In my own little shadowy corner of the web, I’m keenly aware of the time requested of others. When you stick a piece of writing in front of someone’s face, you’re demanding a real commodity of them—their time. I keep the vast majority of my posts here under 500 words. Google will now tell you how long it’ll take to read my musings, so I won’t even ask 15 minutes of your time. Others, however, don’t always get the message.

The internet has also granted those who write copiously the ability to send long messages to complete strangers. People I don’t know find my name and send me lengthy emails, perhaps supposing an editor simply chooses material at random to publish. I even get requests on LinkedIn that begin with “Seeking representation.” I’m not an agent, and I’ve had a great deal of trouble finding one to represent my own fiction. Those who know me sometimes ask why I don’t write something longer (I do—my third book is on its way), but the fact is I respect your time far too much. My thoughts about religion in modern life ask only a few moments of your time to think, I hope, about matters profound and important. Then click off to another site. Besides, this blog contains well over a million words by now, and that is plenty long.

I try to read every email from an actual human. I also read about 100 books a year, not including those I read all day long at work. My world is made of words. I do not, however, have unlimited time. Sadly, when I walk into a bookstore I often look at how thick a book is. How much of my time is an author demanding? Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of books with a weight problem on my shelves, many of them read from cover to cover. Still, they’re asking for my trust. Trust that the time spent won’t have been wasted. The web is a great place to kill time. It’s also a place, occasionally, to pause and reflect. This blog is no super-site with myriad hits every day, but it’s a place that makes little demand of your time. And it is my sincerest hope, dear reader, that time spent here is never simply killed.

Keeping Pace

I had no idea my life was in danger. I was out for a weekend walk with my wife, when suddenly, there they were. Snails. In case you think I’m over-reacting, take a look at Christopher Jobson’s piece on Colossal titled “Why Knights Fought Snails in the Margins of Medieval Books.” One of the main points is that the snails were symbols. We tend to forget the power of symbols today. Even modern vampires no longer react to crucifixes—what are we supposed to do? For those who are willing to linger a moment instead of rushing on immediately to the next thing, snails give us quite a bit to contemplate. In a world that hates slow-pokes, “consider,” as my friend Ecclesiastes might’ve said, “the snail.”

As highly evolved cousins of the snail, we suppose we were cut out for greater things. We build towers. We make new nations. We watch them both crumble. On the ruins of those walls we find snails. They have very little to do and expend no worries about getting there on time. Nobody emulates them, although some masticate them. They tend to disappear when the sun is hot. They don’t like the limelight. Yet snails contribute to our world in ways we simply don’t take the time to contemplate. Our time has been commodified. We’re told when to sleep and when to wake for our jobs. Then we’re told none of it matters anymore since 45 has decided to change the rules with his latest tweet. And still the snails crawl.

Before I learned to fear them, I remember happy childhood moments finding snails. This was generally not at home since we rented even then, and landlords have a weird compulsion about landscaping. When wandering far enough from home I’d find snails crawling on stalks of damp grasses early in the morning. They fascinated me. If I plucked them off, they’d pull in their eye-stalks and retreat into their shells. So secure. So symbolic. Eventually I learned that I was obligated to move fast. Keep pace. Be measured by my productivity. Pharaoh’s watching, after all, and that quantity of bricks required isn’t getting any smaller. Not many, I would learn, share my appreciation of snails. It takes a great deal of confidence to go slowly. Those who routinely ignore speed limits won’t understand my symbolism here, I know. Still, I can’t help but think we have a great deal to learn from our cousins who remind us that time isn’t everything after all.

Size Does Matter

While not exactly a Luddite, my grasp on technology is tenuous. I grew up in what may be the last generation where computer use was considered optional—I made it through a master’s degree without ever using one, and could have managed my doctorate without. Like many of 1960s vintage, I resisted computers at first, somehow believing that the status quo ante would ante up and resist the technobabble that was already beginning to bubble just beneath the surface. I never really had a clear idea what a byte was, or how a simple 0 or 1 could be used to convey complex information. I heard about “blogs” but had no idea what they were. Next thing I know I found myself writing one. To my way of thinking any kind of log is essentially a “once a day” thing, although I know bloggers who post remorselessly all day long. At the beginning I was confused until a friend gave me some advice: don’t write too much in any one post. Keep entries down to about three to five paragraphs, and between 300 and 500 words. That way, he intimated, people will look at it.

Recently, wondering why amid the millions and millions of pages available on the web, mine gets so few hits, I read something by an “industry analyst.” (That phrase makes me shudder, but this is no place to be squeamish.) Want more hits? he provocatively asked, followed by—here are the tips. One of his first bits of advice was write longer. At least three times longer than I do (1,500 word minimum). I don’t know about you, but I often think of such things in holistic terms. That’s a lot of words to ask someone to read. If you’re going to put that much together, you’d better have something really profound to say. You’re asking for an investment.

Those of you who know me will understand that multiplying words is not an issue. In addition to this blog I write both fiction and non-fiction books and stories (the vast majority of which have never been published). I answer a simple question with a 50-minute lecture. In other words I have other words. I just tend not to think that you necessarily want to read them all at once (or at all). It’s obvious that size does matter. I can’t help being disappointed when I open a post and find I haven’t the time to read it because it’s just too long. Life’s not fair in its allotment of time. As usual, I err on the side of caution. I value your time to take up too much of it here.

Image by Scarlet23, Wikimedia commons

Image by Scarlet23, Wikimedia commons

Dairy King

In the way that only social pundits can generate stereotypes, people born between 1979 and 1994 are called “the entitlement generation.” Large scale social attitudes, it is alleged, set an almost unbreakable Zeitgeist that defines us neatly so that we can be made easier to handle. Obviously I don’t fit into that generation, but as I watch the super-rich—often old enough to know better—claiming that they shouldn’t pay taxes because they do such good for society simply by existing, I wonder if the pundits might’ve missed the boat. An antonym to entitlement, it seems to me, is social responsibility, gratitude even. That’s why I find a story in Time from back in April so encouraging. Hamdi Ulukaya, the president and CEO of a successful yogurt company (Chobani), decided to give his full-time employees, in a reverse kind of tithing, a 10 percent share of the company. After all, one can only eat so much yogurt.

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This generous action sets out in sharp relief some of the dangers of quotidian capitalism. Many of those who feel that unencumbered free enterprise is the only fair system don’t spend long enough looking around themselves. I’m sure studies must exist that explore what the cubicle mentality does to people. Working in a little cell, open to the view of others to ensure you aren’t slacking, knowing that someone on the floors above is getting rich from your efforts, it’s hard to believe the system’s working. Descend to street level and those who don’t even rate as drones will meet your eyes, if you keep them open. We are in the habit of discarding people as just another resource that can be remaindered and wasted. Let them eat yogurt. Social obligation? What’s that?

No, entitlement didn’t begin in 1979. Perhaps the most obvious idealist in this country the past century was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He repeatedly earned the wrath of the entitled wealthy for wanting to set up social safety nets to help the poor. When the United States entered World War Two, he realized, however, that military contracts had to allow for owners to get rich otherwise they wouldn’t contribute to the effort. If you’ve got the money to keep yourself safe, what do mere concepts as liberty and fairness mean to you? Wealth entitles personal survival, obviously. Let the others fend for themselves. There are companies with a conscience, but the fact that they stand out so clearly against the backdrop of business as usual should be telling us something. As you chew this over, you might consider having a Chobani. Go ahead, you’re entitled.

Monumental Time

One of my nieces works on the 10,000-year clock (aka Clock of the Long Now). I’ve written about the project before—the object is to build a clock that will run a myriad of years. For comparison, 10,000 years ago we were only beginning to tamper with this concept we call civilization. Clocks have been my muse this week. Monumental clocks have long fascinated people. The Engle Clock, in the National Watch and Clock Museum, was completed about 1878. In those days, these large clocks (it literally weighs half a ton) toured the country as technological marvels—something that fails to impress, I suppose, in an iWatch age. Nevertheless, this is a clock with all the whistles and bells—literally. Figures come marching out at various fractions of the hour, culminating with a skeletal death chiming the end of each sixty minutes. The figures are both secular and sacred, a mix that the people of the days just after the Civil War no doubt appreciated.

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At the top of the clock, at quarter to the hour, Jesus appears. Doors above him open and the “three Marys,” including, of course, his mother, come out. Meanwhile the twelve disciples process in front of their Lord, each respectfully turning toward him. The devil appears, shifting from window to window, and one disciple does not turn to greet Jesus. This is Peter who instead turns his back, and immediately, to borrow a Gospel trope, the cock above their heads crows. Finally, as the apostolic procession winds down, the Devil appears last in line. It is all quite elaborate. The clock took Stephen Engle two decades to build—time he would never recover. The religious message, I suspect, was taken much more seriously then than it is now. After all, the clock is a museum piece.

Throughout the museum, references to Christianity abound. Not only Galileo, but many Medieval time-watchers saw God literally in the face of time. Clocks were embossed with religious figures. Hours were kept to remind the faithful to pray. The time, as the New Testament insists, was short. Ironically, we still build monumental clocks. Some are based on the 9-billionth of a second vibration period of cesium, while others are made to last ten millennia. We have secularized time. Now its purpose is mainly to tell us when to go to work. When to wake up to go to work. And when we might eventually leave work. I might enjoy building clocks myself. The fact is, however, I don’t have that kind of time.