Captain’s Log: I finished a 30-day yoga challenge and I’m about to finish an 8-week indoor cycling challenge, but somehow it’s only been 50 days since I visited a restaurant but a solid 18 months since I last saw a dentist. I keep throwing out bargains like “Let the pandemic recede and I’ll never wait three years to get a Pap smear again,” but the universe hasn’t bitten yet.
Herein follows some disjointed thoughts on time, written on a day when I’m at least two days over my maximum days-without-shampooing:
There’s only one Punxsutawney Phil
My least favorite meme of the current moment is people constantly referencing “Groundhog Day.” Not because we hardly need to be reminded that it’s still preposterous that even a younger Bill Murray could have landed Andie MacDowell (let alone Scarlett Johansson, but I’ll save “Lost in Translation” for when I’m ready to interrogate my feelings about manic pixie dream girls), but because people keep referring to it as “Groundhogs Day.” It’s unclear whether they think there’s more than one groundhog or that the day belongs to the groundhog, but either way, it grinds my gears like seeing an ampersand in the middle of a sentence. (Do you people call it “Martin Luther King’s Day”? “Christ’smas”?)
Saganaki > sagacity
Last year, I went to Greece, and I also got really into Ted Chiang. I’ve never been especially into either classics or sci-fi. I made a horrifying bust of Athena in 1998 — I vaguely remember using straight pins to attach yarn to a head-shaped Styrofoam wig stand — and then I forgot about antiquity for two decades.
In Greece I paid more attention to the cheese than the history, but somewhere on the label for an ancient shard of pottery or something I saw a reference to the notion of “kairos,” one of those untranslatables that roughly equates to “the proper time for action.” Kairos contrasts with “chronos,” or linear time. It resonated and then I promptly forgot what it actually meant and decided it meant time as an amorphous blob sans relativity, in which things happen irrespective of what other things happen.
Ted Chiang is a science-fiction author and if you haven’t read him yet, you’re missing out. He’s published two collections of short stories, including the one on which the movie “Arrival” was based. Every one of his stories is like “Arrival”: You think you’re in for a smart science caper and for a few winking pages he indulges you, and then suddenly you’re weeping and reconsidering your place in the universe. That, over and over again, for three hundred pages. It’s brutal.
Several of his stories touch on time and on the idea of time as something that doesn’t proceed as we perceive it. Kind of an erudite “Jeremy Bearimy” (if you know, you know). The point is less to pull time-travel gotchas — nobody swoops in on a hippogriff to rescue a wrongly accused wizard outlaw, etc. — and more to ask what you do when fate is the devil you know.
I feel ambivalent about speculative fiction. I mostly find it futile to read about other people’s preposterous ideas of the future, although it feels silly to say that from here in the middle of a pandemic during which we entertain ourselves by beaming our faces into one another’s homes. I have trouble psyching myself up to read about the multiverse when for every Ted Chiang there are ten godforsaken versions of Helen Schulman’s Come With Me, a book I hated so much that I read it, put it out of my mind, read it again, and only realized when I went to rage-rate it one star on Goodreads that I’d wasted not, say, four but eight solid hours of my life on it. (Was that Groundhog Day? The elusive “i” in the Bearimy?)
I usually walk away from speculative fiction wondering what the point is. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about time — because I’ve been thinking a lot about death, and about routine — and in doing so keep drifting back to the other versions of time that I’ve encountered in my reading and travels. I mentioned a few weeks back that I keep finding myself looking for a deus ex machina and I think that might be part of it: I’m trying to gird myself for the possibility of a loved one’s death by thinking of how death matters less if you don’t experience time linearly. Which seems, as I said, pointless, since the only humans who don’t experience time linearly are the ones who exist only in speculative fiction, both “speculative” and “fiction” being operative words. Except that here we are in a pandemic during which we entertain ourselves by beaming our faces into one another’s homes.
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22
Yesterday I went jogging for the first time in about a century and passed through a garden that lies on my commute if I walk in that’s bloomed riotously since the last time I did so, some 60 days ago. Unlike everyone kvetching about “Groundhogs” Day, I’ve been kind of basking in how time has flattened. I like going to the grocery store on a Tuesday morning and lying in on Thursday.
I don’t think “kairos” is intended to mean “saying fuck-it to the lunch bell and eating your big kale salad at a quarter to noon or two P.M. because that’s when you’re hungry,” but there’s something refreshingly primal about getting off the hamster wheel of commuting and lunch at noon. A decade ago when I was staring down the barrel of having to pick a career I felt deep, existential dread at the idea of an office job. I worked retail during my first year out of college and I loved to run errands on weekday mornings. I felt like a lady of leisure.
Lately I feel like I’ve looped back onto my early-twentysomething self. Video calls with college classmates and reply-all threads with community theatre casts, grocery shopping on weekday mornings, and a consuming focus on the present because the future is opaque. That sounds more zen than it feels. I can’t plan, so I’m not trying; I can’t progress, but time marches on. Allegedly.