Tuesday, July 5, 2016
When I was a kid, the time between holidays and birthdays elapsed at a glacial pace – except for summer. Summer surged and heaved, a torrent, suddenly evaporating on Labor Day, leaving me stranded in a new classroom, confused and anxious, in my newest clothes. I have a whole catalog of sensations, mostly olfactory, that will instantly conjure my back-to-school apprehensions. Souring fallen leaves, linoleum, dew-dappled spiderwebs, a cool morning and the tang of an oil furnace… These memories are hard-wired into my brain and I fully expect them to surface in my doddering years. I may some day forget my caregiver’s name, but never the smell of a new spelling book.
As I’ve grown older, and have fewer years ahead of me, I have observed an unfortunate paradox regarding the experience of passing time. Those twenty-five weeks from Christmas to the fourth of July, that seemed a full eon in my youth, are gone in a flash. Indeed, even birthdays occur so rapidly that I’ve had to pause to calculate my age. Ten years have gone by and so fast... a lifetime for a fourth grader.
I’m not alone in this observation, and many people have mused on specific whys and how-comes. I used to wonder if our expanding Universe was shrinking the fabric of time like a clothes dryer, in some cruel cosmic equilibrium. Objective measurements of space-time, by genuine and lettered scientists, do not support my wild suppositions, however. The two most compelling explanations are “time ratios” and “novelty”.
The “time ratios” explanation, first couched by French psychologist Pierre Janet, dates back to 1877. Simply put, as you get older, a year is a smaller percentage of your age. The human brain apparently marks time on a relative scale. A single year for a ten year-old is equivalent to five years when he is fifty years old. I haven’t done the math, but a logarithmic calendar seems unworkable for planning even a cocktail party, when everyone lives at a different point on their time curve.
Amazingly, novelty – specifically unique life experiences – seems to slow the objective experience of passing time. Think back to that first day of school. Remember all the new faces, the new classroom, your new shoes, and the new expectations. The next day, it was still new. By the time you were comfortable with addition, what’s this? Multiplication? And so on. In an unfamiliar environment, everything is alien, and your brain is hyper-alert, actively engaged in making sense of your new surroundings. This necessary mindfulness packs your cerebellum with useful memories and connections to weigh and analyze every waking moment. No wonder Christmas takes so long to arrive.
As an adult, your life is probably fairly stable and routine. Everything has a predictable rhythm and weeks, months can go by without any noteworthy events. The wide, calm river of time carries you without a ripple, nothing breaks the glassy surface.
People who have been in traumatic car collisions can provide vivid accounts of the sound of the impact, what they saw in the moment, the smells of anti-freeze, gasoline. They describe junk from the floor adrift in the passenger compartment. An airbag blocks their vision and suddenly everything is quiet. An event that happened in a couple of seconds is magnified, unfolded in the brain and remembered in endless fractal detail.
I don’t want to crash my car to expand time. There are innumerable ways to add novelty to one’s life. Career changes, divorce, a new home, anybody’s basic list of stressful life events will do. Novelty needn’t be harrowing nor grim, it can arise naturally and easily through travel to a new or foreign destination.
A week spent in an unknown city will seem, in hindsight, a dilated temporal extravaganza. The food, language, public transit, are all nuts to be cracked, with wit, will, and wisdom. Waking hours packed with adventure and exploration harken back to kindergarten, when the world was bigger and brighter. It can be exhausting, but I promise your memories will be rich and plentiful. A week spent elsewhere will overshadow your routine daily existence, and for many years to come.
And this can be done at home, too. Seek out the new, the unknown. See your city, your hometown, like a tourist. Find the things that make visitors gasp. Take your normal weekly routine and pull it tight across a new landscape. It will stretch and the months of your year with it.
The river of time will ebb in its progress, not as a languid delta of featureless mud, but like a playful mountain stream. Your hours will tumble across the slope, bubbling and dancing over boulders, under and through log jams, eddying in tranquil leafy pools. No two rapids will be the same, there may be a waterfall occasionally, but you will catch your breath in the bracing spume for a moment before riding a rocky chute to another crystalline pool. And you will never forget.