Notes on Time


When Orlando meets a cross-dressed Rosalind in As You Like It, she demands “what is’t o’clock?” and he replies, taking her for an adolescent page, “There’s no clock here in the forest.” This idea is echoed by Hal in Henry IV, Part One, when Falstaff is introduced with the yawning question, “What time of day is it, lad?” to which Hal responds: “Unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds . . . I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of day.” The tavern, like the forest, like the play itself, is supposed to be an escape from the world of duty and cares.


Rosalind goes on to establish her wit by commenting on time’s relativity: “Time travels in divers paces with divers persons.” For a young maid, for instance, “time trots hard withal” between her engagement and marriage; a week seems seven years. Time ambles with the rich, who needn’t work. Time gallops with a thief to the gallows, who thinks he arrives there too soon. Later, she/he advises a proud shepherdess, “Sell when you can, you’re not for all markets.” Natural time is further contrasted to clock time by both fool and cynic: “We ripe and ripe, then rot and rot,” muses Touchstone, inspiring Jacques’s set piece on the seven ages of man: “Sans teeth, sans eyes. Sana taste, sans everything.”


Falstaff’s tavern time yields to that of nation. On the field of honor, when Hal needs a pistol and instead Falstaff draws and offers a bottle of sack, Hal dismisses him: “What is it a time to jest and dally now?” And the last words of Hal’s rival, Hotspur, who has lived primarily for honor, are that “life, time’s fool . . . must have a stop.”


In the tragedies, bad timing and failed communication result in catastrophe: Romeo’s failure to get the Friar’s message, Juliet’s reviving from seeming-death a moment too late; Emilia’s interruption of Othello, too late; Cleopatra’s false report of death, and then of life, too late; the reprieve of Cordelia’s execution, too late.


And most disturbing of all, perhaps, in regard to clashing aspects of time, are Macbeth’s efforts to force natural time, which demands reproduction for a future, into personal time. Only with Macbeth’s death, can Scotland rejoice: “The time is free.”


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In his memoir, Crabcakes (1998), James Alan McPherson contrasts machine time to human time. He has invited Japanese visitors to meet him for dinner at an Iowa City restaurant, but arrives three hours late. The visitors, who have eaten without him and now are leaving, are deeply offended. He then takes years to fully explain and apologize. “Our time-sense, like yours, has of necessity been different from that of the West. Perhaps the difference resides in our African genes, or perhaps it derives from the emotional adjustments we have had to make, over the centuries, in order to survive in such a brutal contest as this one. We once evolved our own time-sense. We called it CPT, or “Colored People’s Time.” This was a time sense which once ranged uniformly through our feelings, in defiance of the illusions imposed by Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific, Daylight Savings, and all the other time meridians east or west of Greenwich. This private time-sense had to do with the quality of our feelings, with the health of our souls. It was experiential, sacred time, as opposed to tick-tock clock time: “I promised to be there at 6:45, but another person, a brother, was bleeding, and he came to me, expecting me to open up my heart and let him in . . . 


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Time is money, we say; we spend, we save. Time waits for no man. Carpe diem! “Had we but world enough and time / This coyness lady would be no crime” (Marvell). Time flies. Or stands still, or seems to. Waste of time. Quality time. In our time. The time of our lives (our most enjoyable moment). Prime time. Stop-time in music. Keeping time (rhythm). The test of time. Killing time. Biding time. Buying time. Stealing time. Wiling away the hours. Making time (Tim O’Brien abandons his writing career to parent his young children; as did McPherson to be present for his daughter). For everything there is a season (Ecclesiastes). “Eterne in mutability” (Spenser). Showtime! Time to deliver. Now and forever hold your peace. Hard time (both as in prison and in making something difficult). Time heals all wounds. Make up for lost time. Beat the clock. Watch the clock. In the nick of time. All in good time. Timely. Timeless. Timeworn. High time. Leisure time (thank you, industrial revolution, for time-saving conveniences; thank you, high tech). Pastime. Time on our hands. Time out. Out of time.


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If I email my son in Bali, New Guinea, on Sunday in Boston, it is his Monday; my winter, his summer. Space is time. Longitudes determine time zones, and latitudes the seasons. Bali is some 8800 miles from Boston, its time zone a day ahead of Boston’s, and its latitude south rather than north of the equator. If I flew, I would leave Boston at noon, Saturday, and arrive there on Monday morning. Actual time in flight, at 500 mph, some 21 hours; price one-way, $1200. Light years. Light from that galaxy, those stars, is from millions of years ago.


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Our moon orbits the earth, which orbits the sun, while our whole solar system drifts in the Milky Way. Seasons. Winter solstice. Days and nights. Our measures of organic and geological life. Breathing in and out: how many breaths? How many heartbeats? What pulse rate? How many cycles of sleep and waking? How many years? Birthdays, death days. Eat, digest. Repetitions. Menstrual cycles. Cycles of desire. Gestation. Things grow; children grow, their heights measured on our doorjamb. In work and career, deadlines, projects in progress, completed, forgotten. Agendas. Wear and tear. Lifespans for different species and creatures. The new flock of birds, the robin nesting outside our window. Teaching, the semesters’ clock, twenty-five new 20-somethings, each fall, each spring. Names change, faces, selves; I change. Their youth is the constant.


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We speak of life journeys, which we try to measure as passages: childhood, adolescence, youth, adulthood, parenthood, grandparenthood; pick a number. From the traveler’s perspective, time blurs past like nearby landscape, moves more slowly at a middle distance, and seems fixed on the horizon. What’s past and passing and to come. There is the self and the times. In personal time, we think of our dead, our parents, siblings, loved ones and friends. We have our memories of each, as persons, supported and prompted by artifacts, by documents, by photographs and films (as time passes the faces, costumes, and settings grow stranger and stranger, more fixed and quaint); we have our family legends. We dream of those as yet unmet, unborn. But then, also, there’s cultural time. Collective time. Decades. Presidents. Wars. Achievements and events that touched all of us, or do touch, or will. News time (breaking and old); historical time; Biblical time. Geological time. The backwards and abysm of time. The principles of progress and decay. The species too. Evolution. Devolution. Extinction. We call them eons and ages. Life on earth. Ordovician. Devonian. Permian. Triassic. Cretaceous. 440 million years ago, 251 million, 66 million. Man’s ancestors, smart apes, 10 million year ago. Neanderthals, 500,000 years ago. Homo sapiens, 200,000 years ago. Modern humans, perhaps 50,000 years ago. Our entire existence, our longevity as a species, is barely an instant in time out of mind.


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I can’t grasp, finally, the latest theories and philosophies about time, summarized here . We consider time as a “measurable duration,” which is the whole the point of clocks (whether sundial, hour glass with sand, water clock, windup, electronic, or atomic, analog or digital). We take our pulses as beats per minute. That 80-year-old has lived for 29,200 days. But parse the notions of past, present, future, of tense itself; of progress and decline; of change, succession, and motion; of Providence, foreknowledge, fate and free will: and I’m lost. Duration (from eons, lifetimes, seasons, days and hours and minutes, to milliseconds, to attoseconds) seems as reducible as particles of matter. Experience vanishes into idea. What measure or duration divides “present” from “past”? Is the present all there is, encompassing the past and future? Is the ordering of time only a function of neurology? How do we account for change itself? For growth? Decay? For a ten-minute mile or a ten-thousand mile flight? Why, beginning in the 1980s, do writers insist on telling stories in the present tense? “I wake and am a cockroach.” Is all we know phenomenal, surprising and inexplicable? How do we connect then, now, and later? Is the flow of time a trick of perception, like the blur of cinematic frames? Is the notion of self as changeable as selves, so that history becomes more imagined than true and the truest story one that admits to relativity? “If I had been younger,” writes Alice Munro, “I would have figured out a story [an easy, sentimental version of known facts] . . . Later I might have believed [a more cynical version, concerning failures to communicate] . . . Now I no longer believe that people’s secrets are defined and communicable, or their feelings full-blown and easy to recognize” (“The Stone in the Field”).


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I anticipate. I plan and prepare. I rehearse a coming event in action or in mind, and when the moment arrives, and it is all happening, I’m surprised, sometimes. Sometimes the experience is more, less, better, or worse than the imagining. And then there’s my memory of it afterwards—not just the eternal instant, but the flow of that happening, those five seconds or so, that hour, that day. Not the instant of a photograph. Not the sequence of instants of a video recording. But experience in full texture, fully recalled, more like a place than a time. We marry. Our children are born. I find a livelihood and mission. I mount the bungee scaffold and leap, with my elastic tether. A chapter is finished, a book. Life’s conditions alter. Rewards. Disappointments. A death. A loss. An accident or health problem. Vicissitudes.


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Alzheimer and dementia patients lose their sense of time. They can’t remember loved ones or friends. They grow confused about the date, the day of the week, the season. They need fixed routines and lose their sense of duration. If you leave them for a moment, they think you’ve been gone all day, or that you’re never coming back.


In his final years, after publishing his collection of essays, A Region Not Home (2000), McPherson developed dementia. He stopped traveling, writing, and teaching, and from 2010 until his death in 2015, suffered accidents, underwent various operations, and was confined to an assisted care facility. Though we had been collaborators and personal friends, we lost phone and written contact. Friends in Iowa City kept me informed, and finally I flew from Boston to visit him in 2013. The facility was locked, presumably to prevent residents from wandering off. David Hamilton, a retired professor and former editor of The Iowa Review, and I signed in, found McPherson ready, and signed him out for the day. With Hamilton as host, and driving us around, McPherson seemed himself. We had our personal connection. He was witty and joking as ever, as generous and alert about people and curious about the times. It was one of his good days. We met Allen Gee, his former student, friend, and official biographer later that afternoon for a Thai dinner. We talked about teaching Shakespeare and the word “prolepsis,” and when I praised his own essay about Othello, he asked: “Did I write that?” Allen Gee chimed in, “You did. It’s called ‘Three Great Ones of the City.’” And me: “I use it all the time, Jim. You see Othello in terms of his Levantine lineage and ethical system, symbolized by the handkerchief, and end up comparing him to O.J. Simpson.” “I do?” he asked. “I said that?” He enjoyed hearing about himself, with bemused wonder and pride, as if the self we described were some unknown, close relation.


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Time “dilates” in space, we’ve discovered. The clocks in the orbiting International Space Station are slower than those on earth. Since the ISS astronauts are moving faster than we do on earth, they age more slowly. On return from a six-month tour, they will have aged only a fraction less than we have , but scientists predict dramatic differences after, say, a trip to Mars and back. It’s conceivable that after still farther, faster travel, future astronauts could return physically younger than their children, or even after the lifetimes of everyone they’d left.


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We resist aging, at least once we reach our prime. Where my seven-year-old granddaughter yearns for the status of her adolescent sister, 40-somethings celebrate the cult of youth. We fight our body clocks with cosmetics, hair dye, exercise, plastic surgery, and drugs. We also resist adult responsibilities, like Peter Pan, and seek to remain free. Live for the moment! Gather ye rosebuds! Youth’s a stuff that won’t endure, except in Shangri-La. Even our visions of an afterlife assume a return to our prime. But who wants a perpetual present, really? We strive to adjust seasonal extremes with heat or a/c, yes. We look to cryogenics to freeze our present bodies and wake them in some future where medicine has cures for all disease, if not for mortality itself. But imagine a world without aging. Or always high noon. Always Spring. Time passes, but without measure or change. No progress. No decay.


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The Enlightenment Deists, such as Benjamn Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, saw God as the divine watchmaker, who created the universe, set it going, and then stepped aside. The clock’s natural laws were never changed or suspended by the maker. Through reason, men could be morally improved (see Franklin’s list of daily virtues). Social justice made sense. However, while the clock was perpetual, lives were not.

Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-67) plays with the Deistic model. Tom Clark comments: “The strategies of extension, elaboration, complication, equivocation, prolongation, procrastination, pevarication, teasing, lengthening, stretching out—the strategies, in short, of this most digressive of novels—can be seen to have a common logical basis in the desire to retard an ending, not only of a novel, but of its author’s existence.”


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Boethius (translated by Chaucer) defended free will by contrasting divine and human perspectives. God’s present was eternal, and simultaneously contained the past and future: “as from a lofty mountain-top above all.” For mortals, time was local: “just as you can see things in this your temporal present, so God sees all things in His eternal present.” To see is not to cause. Therefore God does not “determine” our individual choices and their outcomes. We remain responsible. “If Providence sees an event in its present, that thing must be, though it has no necessity of its own nature. And God looks in His present upon those future things which come to pass through free will.” At best, I understand this through the analogy to story-telling, but only partly. Chaucer’s narrator knows that Troilus will lose Criseyde, but sympathetically imagines his falling in love. “So long as the future is not known to participants in the action, they can act as if they were free,” comments Morton Bloomfield (“Distance and Predestination in Troilus and Cressida”). In the end, Troilus’s spirit ascends through the spheres “and joins with his author in finding what peace can be found in a pagan heaven.”


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If wisdom accrues from lessons and examples, then both individuals and societies should become wiser over time. We should stand on the shoulders of our forebears; learn, progress and grow. Or not. Civilizations fall. Languages die. Ignoring history, we do repeat it. The glory that was Greece and grandeur that was Rome declined into the Middle Ages. And then there’s also future shock. Times too present to imagine; change too complex and sudden to process. Information overload. New powers and old weaknesses. “The future is now,” boasts Honeywell. But as change accelerates, generation gaps become decade gaps or less. Those born to new circumstances adapt, but their elders feel overwhelmed. The old wisdoms don’t apply. The nuclear age. Birth control. Computers. The internet. Manned space flight. Social revolutions. New customs. Unforeseen complications. Life-prolonging medical advances. Globalization. Artificial intelligence. Robotics. Virtual reality. We can’t know the future, but try to prepare. Fossil fuels dwindle as energy needs climb. Carbon emissions affect ozone depletion and global warming. Populations increase out of proportion to food and water supplies. Still how can we agree on the wisest actions to take? How can we believe?


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British Victorians “felt the menace of the time as much as its promise,” according to Jerome Buckley in The Triumph of Time (1966), but by mid-20th century, after two World wars, the Depression, the Holocaust and the Bomb, we moderns were living “with the idea of a present decadence . . . And [our] visions of the future no longer evoked the bucolic utopia...but instead the grotesque perspectives of a Brave New World.”

In postmodern times (those of my generation’s majority), we’ve suffered American reverses in Viet Nam and the Midde East. Poverty, racism, sexism, imperialism, oppression, and extremism persist. Yet we’ve also witnessed hopeful reforms and revolutions, notably those of civil rights, feminism, and the sexual revolution. The Cold War ended. Our technological and scientific advances have taken us into space, as well as into the nature of matter itself and the mysteries of minds and bodies. Our perspectives are more molecular, multicultural and global than ever.

Before the onset of his dementia, whenever McPherson visited Boston (he had friends nearby and his daughter went to Tufts), we discussed the state of our culture and times. We collaborated in editing several issues of Ploughshares and an anthology, Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men (1998), where we asked writer-fathers about the perplexities of parenting daughters during decades of questioning, polarization, and social change. McPherson envisioned a future with “elbow room” and the emergence of an “omni-American” identity, an identity that “operates beyond race and class and sexual orientation”; however, when we talked, he dwelt on signs of decadence, moral dandyism, and materialism on every side and asked woefully what would become of us? As if in call and response, I’d counter with my own stubborn hope for what he called transcendence. The better way.


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I believe in moments out of time. Art. Vision. Epiphanies. Walter Pater called them “profoundly significant and animated instants, a mere gesture, a look, a smile, perhaps—some brief and wholly concrete moment—into which, however, all the motives, all the interests and effects of a long history, have condensed themselves, and which seem to absorb past and future in an intense consciousness of the present.”

What about the present? Live for the moment, some say, as if there were no tomorrow. Live for sensation. Poetry, however, is emotion recollected in tranquility. We need time to share forever the moment’s meaning, while the moment itself is fleeting. As for tranquility, many seek that in nature, the heart’s forest, rather than in frenetic living. Perhaps that’s the idea of resting for a seventh day. Or of practicing meditation techniques, breath in, breath out, empty the mind; ignore outside distractions and demands, focus on being fully present, the here, the now. Think of Thoreau’s search for essentials and his refusal to “live what was not life.” Think of Anderson’s “The Untold Lie” in Winesburg, Ohio: ”The whole world seemed to Ray Pearson to have become alive with something just as he and Hal had suddenly become alive when they stood in the corn field staring into each other’s eyes.” Lose yourself to find yourself.

No time like the present, we say (meaning seize the day). “Gone in the instant of becoming,” says William James.


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I loves ya, tomorrow!

Oh, I believe in yesterday!

Just in time, you found me just in time.

Forever I’ll be true!

These are the good old days.

We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight.

O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!


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I retired from teaching recently, but still I need time to write about time. Thoughts rise. I ransack my reading life, revisit passages and quotes that I’ve savored. The field of meaning grows. I brave Wikipedia, following tangents and associations. I read more. I try to be well-informed, playful, and intuitive. Meanwhile, the season turns, nearby trees drop their leaves; I rake and rake. I bag the leaves and put them out for Friday pick up. Day by day, the weekends come. I work out in the gym from 2 to 3 pm. My wife keeps to her busy work schedule. A right wing President is elected. Thanksgiving comes and passes, with our trip to my son’s life now in New Jersey. I go to readings and book launches by friends. My calendar has its demands. As does my body. The moon brightens to full and wanes. A cold front arrives. There are many clocks in my forest.


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Absorbed in writing, I look up, and hours have passed.

My five-year-old wristwatch fails and I buy a new one, pleased to wake up in the night, push the button, and see its face glow green. 3:21 am!

Our numbered days. We can’t know how many we have, each of us, before time swallows all, including our thoughts about time.  

Copyright © 1999-2017 Juked