Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Time Escaped

I. Timeless
What is timeless? Polite silent snow knocking on my windows during late night storms, storms that put me to sleep with restless white stillness. The lingering beats of a March evening – small drums on rooftops and sidewalks – while I sit in bed in Connecticut, stirs the same expressions within me as the lingering final note of a violin (the violinist’s body displaying that note far past the note’s end; silence in the concert hall). Hold your breath, and the bird sings through the beats of the rain, and the snow taps on my windows during dreams of old cars, dream catchers and long ago places. Timelessness is the act of revisiting old memories and familiar places, the circulation of events in time.

I don’t remember growing up. But I’d imagine it happened in the crevices between large happenings. Those silent crevices of introspection casually links the past and present through understanding and time. Growing up is as continual as time moving through the years and as quantized as the shortest, conscious unit we have to measure that time. Growing up happened, and it is still happening.
* * * * *
Two years out of college and out of living in Connecticut, I returned to the state of New York after a ten year hiatus. I always hesitate to respond when I’m faced with any combination of the following: “Girl, where you come from?”, “What’s your hometown?”, “Please fill in place of residence here: ________”. My mother and I speak of taking a road trip from our Connecticut home to Potsdam, New York. I tell her I’d go with her on this trip if she comes to visit me in the City: She is frightened of gum on the sidewalks, honking taxi cabs, and catching the flu on subways; I am frightened of returning to a University town the size of my two neighboring blocks, Ponderosa buffets, and realizing my vividly imaginative fantasy-land childhood playgrounds are actually smaller than my parent’s current Cheshire home.

Sometimes, when I am back in Connecticut visiting friends or going to doctor’s appointments, I drive by the Waterbury condo we lived in for three years. I don’t know what compels me to turn the steering wheel to the right to take the longer way on Highland Avenue just to go two minutes out of my way to visit the same black and grey set of buildings with its short, pine bushes, double parking lots, two barely dressed trees and metal fence overgrown with poison ivy. Maybe I do it to feel the firsts (first Christmas celebrations, my mother’s first job, Catholic School, my first pets – two blue parakeets named Ocean and Sky), but really, I find myself staring at a set of condos that strangers live in, and I quickly drive away.

During slow days, I find amusement in comparing my past values – a distinct expression of self – to the ones I have now. In my mind, this is usually connected with locations: Potsdam, Waterbury, Cheshire, New York City. I like to envision what my Potsdam self would say to my Waterbury self, or what my Waterbury self would say to my New York City self. It is as if my memory grasps onto a place– Potsdam, Waterbury, Cheshire, New York – to anchor itself in telling a story. These memories come as vignettes, little flashes of images that I string together in fantastical narrative. But between the present photos of the past, contained in flashes of memory, where is time?
* * * * *
My physics friend Joe once told me in college, “In a hundred years, everybody is dead.” That phrase has resonated with me through the most entertaining moments: “Yes, you partner or director at some firm in New York City – in a hundred years you will be dead.”; “You angry clients, in a hundred years, you will be dead (and so will the people you’re litigating against!)”; “You, belligerent taxi cab driver – in a hundred years, all these drivers, and the j-walking tourists on 5th Avenue, will be dead.”. But the beauty in the phrase lies in the contradictory messages: life is short, so stop worrying, and, life is short, so every moment is critical! I carry this contradiction with me almost everywhere. Humorously, this means that every moment is the panicked realization that the moment’s passing is time’s moving marker toward the end.

In a hundred years, everybody is dead. Fourteen years have passed since Catholic School and the condos in Waterbury. Six years have passed since I last lived in my parent’s Cheshire home. And Potsdam is just a story I tell about my past, the memory so distant that it lives only through the voice of my mother and the hard-copy photos in our family albums. But I existed then like I exist now, mostly in the form of a recollection of words typed slowly onto a page, the meticulous stringing of stubborn thought after stubborn thought.

I ache, an internal ballooning feeling filling in cavities of emotion, when I think of driving through the Main Street of Potsdam with my mother, where I remember the summer festivals with old men dancing the tango with their wives on the closed street – where I remember the local folk bands playing, “Puff the Magic Dragon”; where the July zephyrs brush all memories of the upstate April-winter away; where the cattails dance next to marshes in nature conservatories in the fall for hordes of school children to visit; where little vignettes of memory embody the entirety of a childhood. I wonder, as time moves elegantly forward, what vignettes will be left of New York City years later.

In a hundred years, we will all be gone. Writing reminds me of the possibility of road trips to Potsdam and drive-bys through Waterbury. Placed onto silent, blank pages, my New York moments are safe, with the idea that I can move back in time to recollect them, scooping the singular moments of racing with my team in early, damp mornings in Central Park; of walking past bodegas selling white lilies and wax-yellow chrysanthemums, blooming even at 10pm in March at every corner around Upper East Side neighborhoods; and of listening to bagpipes at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, the accordion in the east gardens in Central Park, and the mumbles of languages from four different continents on Fifth Avenue. The ironic present, representing a relationship between past and future (where is present time?), is immortalized in the echoes of personal eternity by this desire for a record that we have been here, that we have existed with the reality of where and when.
* * * * *
Driving back to Potsdam or Waterbury misses the element of time, but the where is still there. Despite this, I find myself yearning more and more to physically revisit the settings for those memories, despite fears of dislocating realities of my past five-year-old (that indeed, that playground was that small!); I have the hope that a physical picture of a current reality will inspire me in my time-travel and bring me to new places. And traveling there, I can try to re-invent and re-discover a past, stringing the flashes of Potsdam to Manhattan and Waterbury to Cheshire into little stories.

Timelessness is still found in the gentle tapping on my windows every hard snowfall. Closing my eyes, where am I? Am I back in Potsdam, sitting on my mother’s bed in the flat on Lawrence Avenue. Or am I in Waterbury, listening to the sounds as I fall asleep in an overheated condo, or could I be sitting in my study in Cheshire, reading the words of writers who will shape the next ten years of my life? The silent tapping lingers into the moving night, and I drift asleep with my timelessness, the circulation of moment after steady moment.

II. Time Travel
Some physicists will tell you that time travel is impossible because nothing can move faster than the speed of light. Philosophers will use a similar argument by replacing light speed with causality.

Without going into thought experiment details about relativity, the speed of light, worm-holes and Euclidean geometry, one issue with time travel is the impossibility of the present tampering with the past. So, a classic example on the paradoxes of time travel will include the grandfather paradox: you cannot travel back in time to kill your grandfather because you are alive now. But what about non-physical time-travel? Einstein has shown that our reality is made of three dimensions of space and one dimension of time in Euclidean geometry, space-time, which can be treated as a continuum. The concept of space-time continuity, then, allows the possibility of traveling through time and not space.[1]

Time is part of the reality which our minds experience. The human brain is a physical, spatial thing that has a perception of time: we notice the world changing around us, and we notice that we too change spatially through another, non-spatial element. Though, physically, we travel in one direction in time, we can separate what has happened and what is happening by consciously revisiting past moments. It’s a skill that is essential to our survival (imagine if earlier human couldn’t separate the memory of seeing a predator and the current, physical reality?). But ultimately, I keep asking: how real is that memory compared to our present, as the past (some hybrid form of it) is coexisting in the present through the faculties of our conscience?

Identity development is a side effect of what happens when our ability to mentally time travel is done linearly. So during every passing moment, we are re-evaluating and remembering the past in the present and inadvertently choosing certain memories as representatives of some form of “who I am now”. So time, a formulaic component in cause and effect, the marker of the directional nature of events, cannot be described in a flash of memory. Instead, time must be reconstructed, through a story or narrative, woven along the mental pictures, kept as memories and developed as identity.

III. Storytelling
Caveat lector.

In our four dimensional world (with time moving in one direction and memory as our three dimensional way of skipping back to the past in the present, the cheater’s way of time-traveling) it is with words that one can use the unfolding of a memory to give a three dimensional picture its four dimensional narrative – like the Cubist’s two dimensional portrayal of the three dimensional world.

It must be impossible that all these written memories – retold now – are the same as when they happened in the three dimensions of space (the past). Was the car really blue or maybe grey? Was that whole sequence a dream, or did it happen? Did I remember Tiananmen Square, or had it been retold to me, and I have fashioned an imprint of a vision that was really associated with some other memory? Was that really that elusive and effervescent thing love, and did she really save my life? I’ll never know. I remember them, but stories have been told and retold, and a singular moment is cast into segments of interpretation and perspective, hand-picked over time and reconstructed with a motive.

So perhaps half of all this is completely a mis-remembrance. We’ll never know.

Then, it seems, that all this fuss about “who I am” is really just a narrative built by…myself. Things slip away into the “happened” and out of memory, forgotten altogether and perhaps never consciously integrated into the conscious “myself” of now. Ironic, it seems then, that what is “present identity” – the myself and reality of now – is a nice patchwork of fabrication and truth, contained by selected memories and a narrative to describe it.

So, then, to return to the initial time travel question: is it possible to travel back in time without altering the future? Even the time travel of flipping the pages through memory, using conscience as the conduit, will change something in the present. No story – retellings of an experience – is fully accurate to the past. Reconstruction is selective. But this type of non-spatial (and therefore, perhaps non-causal) time travel is exactly what we do all the time. In fact, it is what some of us call “self-evaluation”.

* * * * *

[1] Einstein proved this was possible for near light speed.

The Wild Thing

My happiest and most exhilarating moments often fulfill the most primitive needs. Those moments exist absent complications, and many times, rational thought.

DH Lawrence wrote a poem on self-pity:
"I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself".
It reminds me of a video I saw once: Planet Earth captured footage of a gazelle being taken down by a cheetah after a long chase. The gazelle had no hope of matching the cheetah in speed, but as a wild thing, it has no choice but to act in one way. The slow motion shot allows us to see the gazelle tripping over itself, legs still running even after its fallen, getting up to run again, and falling continuously until the cat strangles it. From both animals, pure instinct. No pity.

Behind the mask of urbanization, the seeping flow of roads and steady growth of skyscrapers, I believe people are wild things. Despite being convinced of our existence as something distinct from "nature", we are as distant from the tilt of that sun which gives earth life as ants are from their hills: we may be earth's most prolific architects, but we are by no means separate from it as a result. A few generations of technology has convinced us that the wild things in us are now civilized, turned into a domestic version of our mammal counterparts.

This spirit of the wild thing manifests itself in creative ways, often in forms or through acts of individuals we find inspiring – what we love so much about sports champions, survivors, artists, and self-made success stories all point to the ability those individuals have to most fully harness the purest forms of their wild intuitions. From the bare grit of enduring pain or the stubborn resilience of defying circumstantial downfalls to the practical genius of creation and intuitive sense of art, even the concept of "genius" (from Lance Armstrong to Mark Rothko) is really the bottled timbre of the stuff that is "wild". The last fighting breath of the gazelle bested by the cheetah, the strategic ferocity of the killer instinct in that cat, the equally desperate struggle among both animals is what we hope to see in our "urbanized" lives – the fighting breath of the marathoner in the last three miles, the killer instinct of the attack on the peloton in the mountain stages of the Tour or Giro, the wildly dancing cypress and grassy fields of Van Gogh’s paintings of Saint-Rémy all evoke in us a parallel feeling. We fight to feel the instinct of both the gazelle and the cheetah. We fight to feel that instinct because it exists underneath the blanket of rational thought we are convinced, erroneously, is the substance of "human-ness". But what is tame about human nature?

My happiest moments are ones that fill the most primitive needs. The summer after my first year from college, I suffered from what could be called a small nervous breakdown. Years of directing my life towards steps that led to goals felt suddenly lost during that summer of 2005; I felt estranged from any basic sense of hope. The single cause of this was that I could not rationalize life. The wild thing in me was suffocated by an elusive sense of responsibility and the overwhelming burden that I had put onto myself. And that is when I started racing again.

"I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor".
My favorite moments in racing, and in general, are ones when I am on the borderline. During those moments, I can feel an edge in both my thoughts and emotions, testing a fragility that is un-tampered during most other moments when physical comfort is so accessible that I don't even realize the separate existence of water, food, air...comfort becomes a limb separate from my own body. That fragility takes me to the humbleness of understanding my organic weaknesses but also experiencing untested and surprising resilience. Those fragile moments are the most clear and distinct - the most "real". They bring me closer to the wild thing in me, clearing out the unnecessary, messy, and complex consequences of rational thought and self-evaluation. There is nothing rational about racing on a bike, speeding downhill at 50 mph with 30 other riders within feet, sometimes inches, where the protection between my body, momentum and the pavement lies in the balance of two, boastfully light carbon wheels with 110 psi worth of pressure. Those blurring moments are based on pure instinct, trust, and a primitive desire to always go faster, a desire to escape cultured boundary by becoming too alive. Likewise, the moment before a sprint finish has no other tactic except intuitive attack - to rationalize would be too late: the twitch of that alarm in your legs is set by an innate clock. So the mirror that we use to both understand and evaluate (a skill precious to a lucid mind) is also inhibiting and burdensome. The lightness and freedom of allowing rational thought to nest behind our basic instincts for a brief moment is nothing less than a momentary epiphany.

Those moments during a race, when I’m on the edge and the wild thing in me feels recognized, exist in more peaceful forms during moments of isolation in the outdoors. In the woods or the mountains there is a delicate balance between the concept of self and the loss of self. In "nature's" home field, I am made elegantly aware of my own "animal" as each human is subjected to the same natural rules as every other creature. The rise and fall of the stars, including the sun, can neither be falsely maintained nor altered by electricity. Trees grow not as a manicured edifice for our daily walks to work but as rulers of tempered weather and soils. And streams do not flow to deliver a private, domestic need, but run according to an unknown history of landscape and winds, ancient markers witness to the evolution of human himself. I am made aware of the mathematically balanced yet chaotic spirit of the wild in the cohesive setting of a forest in
New England or in the Alpine fields of Switzerland. The ultimate capitalist, there is no jurisdiction with more extended and final ruling power than nature herself. But that makes my own little existence feel all the more fulfilling because I, too, become a wild thing amid the trees and the streams.

Talk of primitive man often relegates him to some distant corner of our human history, if he is included in it at all. But it's an unfair casting of a collective consciousness we still maintain, and should maintain - the spirit of human is not so different from the spirit of the earth which gave birth, sheltered, and put to rest that very human. We are wild things. We see it manifest in all human activity, perhaps with more vitality in some than others (and the desire for its closeness and awareness more vital in some than others). But this cultivation and protection of the wild thing in myself has become the most important and valued identity I have.
* * * * *

A Walk in the Evening

It’s evening, the time between when normal people eat dinner and when New Yorkers eat dinner. We’re walking toward the pier off of 43rd Street, two blocks west of my apartment, overlooking the Hudson settled between the West Side Highway and glorious Hoboken, NJ. The center of the City is like the center of the earth – it gets hotter closer to the core. Subway lines, dense crowds, the heat reverberating from the roads and side walks, cars entangled in traffic emitting eerie body-like exhaust – I dread long ends of winters to wake up to a nice, heated day of Manhattan scent (and I think only those who have lived here can really appreciate the concept of a stale "Manhattan scent"). It hit 80 today, eventually settling into a nice evening, especially closer to the Hudson, a noticeable 10 degree difference between 10th Avenue and the pier.

I have a flashback on the walk to the pier. Not some sort of narrative or cohesive story, but a fleeting feeling or image, which is what I think most flashbacks are. People may reconstruct stories to try to make sense of it, but I think they're mostly lying when they say they have a “narrative flashback”. It’s a feeling I remember having when I was young, maybe six or seven. This was all in Potsdam, New York, a town based off one large street, maybe three miles long. The population may have hit something like 9,000 people in the past few years with a median household income around $21,000. My mom used to take me to these graduate student gatherings which included an evening movie, card playing, and what I remember being a lot of my friends gathered in some school facility or other building, though exactly where I can’t remember now (point above proven). I remember running out of the student facility around the center of town during one of these evening get-togethers. I had this feeling of seeing the traffic lights, cars and lit homes and the few buildings that may have been around the town center (which again, escapes my memory). I don’t remember all of the details, just that it was night-time, between that settling point after dinner but before "true night". It was exhilarating. I was running. I was a child who had frequently experienced anxiety and night-tremors of being left alone, was terrified of the dark, and afraid of being lost more than anything else who was running outside in the night without her mom. It was the feeling of evening. On 12th Avenue, I look up and see a boldly-slivered pencil-sharp moon (distinct enough to make out the remainder full, shadowed circular shape), triggering this feeling of "evening". Sure, tonight there are far more lights, cars, and buildings. But I feel evening again.

Those types of feeling flashbacks have decreased as I grow older, and parts of me wonder whether it's because I'm slowly losing touch with myself. When the now becomes a born-in pattern, there's little room for reconciliation between moments of the past and present. Psychoanalysts talk about this thing called alienation, the separation of the self and the image of the self. But I don’t think the acts I commit now can be connected to an introverted but compulsive, introspective and giddy, very sensitive girl at the age of six or something. I look at the past and feel disconnected or outgrown from the feelings and thoughts I'd had. I almost feel a desire to shed myself - the past self at least. The present vessel contains fragments of memories but cannot at once hold all the feelings of the past. But there's the irony - shedding those things from the past would be denying what philosophy of mind scholars call "identity" - the authentication (and almost ratification) of a connection between memories and self. A continuity. I am not ashamed of anything I have ever been through, done, thought, or felt. But I do find, that on a day to day basis of constant thoughts about fixing the problem in front of me or anticipating the problem ahead, or trying to set up a linear path for myself, I'm becoming less nostalgic. As a result, I am less connected to feelings of the past, the very little I have to hold of memories (like, "evening" or "lilac bush outside of our first house on
Winthrop Drive" or "potato after swim practice").

So I guess the feeling "evening" lasted a little less than ten seconds. But for that time, the moment I had forgotten was ratified, validated once again – my six year old experience in the past merged with a twenty-two year old experience in the present. For that instant, it was unclear whether I was six again or twenty-two again. The only clear feeling was evening. I walk back to my apartment with my added memory, heading towards the lit homes of 9 million and not 9,000, the evening settling into a
Manhattan night.
* * * * *