Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Chronophage (time-eater)

Has anyone else noticed that there isn't quite as much "time" in December as there is in, say, January? Why is it that I have as much free time as anyone, and probably more than most, but I always seem to be busy?

Back in the October half-term, which was either a while ago or merely the blink of an eye, I visited Cambridge. Thanks to a combination of fortunate circumstances, I was given a private tour of the College of Corpus Christi. Although I saw many treasures that day, including the rare and ancient manuscipts housed in the Parker Library, it is the image of the Chronophage which sticks in my mind.

The Chronophage is a massive golden time-piece -- a clock of sorts, but one unlike any other. It attempts to represent the true nature of time. A menacing grasshopper sits atop a large disc and relentlessly eats up the seconds. In a motion both smooth and jerky, the grasshopper seems to claw itself, round and round, the circle. (I know it is one of the paradoxes of the blogosphere that we waste endless hours on it, whilst simultaneously trying to spare ourselves the minutes, but it is truly worth taking the time to follow this link and observe the clock for yourself.)

The Chronophage is mechanical and philosophical. It doesn't aim merely to track the seconds, minutes and hours, or act as a warning for the loitering students of Cambridge. What really fascinates is its attempt to capture the "relative" nature of time. Tiny blue lights flash, and then freeze. Time slows, and then speeds up.

The timepiece is completely accurate only every five minutes. The rest of the time, the pendulum pauses then corrects itself as if by magic. The blue lights play optical illusions on the eye, whirring around the disc one second, then appearing to freeze the next. The effect is hypnotic. (Time Online, 19.9.2008)

A couple of weeks ago, as we were hurtling down the dark forested road between school and home, my youngest daughter said: "This moment will never, ever, come again." I have no idea what musings prompted this reflection -- as my youngest daughter is often given to deep thoughts -- but I couldn't help but think "well, yes -- but no." On one hand, she is right -- of course -- and so often lately I have wished to cling tightly to these precious moments of her ten-year-oldness before they vanish forever into the maw of adolescence. But on the other hand, I am so aware of the repetitious quality of my middle-aged life. There are still hundreds, maybe even thousands, of school runs to go before my life reaches the next fork in the road. It won't be the same moment, but it will feel it.

The Saturday night before last, the youngest daughter and I were wrapping the Christmas spoils from a day's shopping in Oxford while watching Einstein and Eddington. Although we were distracted by wrapping paper, tags and bows, I did manage to learn a few things. (There was a marvellous visual metaphor -- involving a tablecloth, a loaf of bread and an apple -- which really helped explain Einstein's theory of relativity.) Towards the end, David Tennant as Cambridge scientist Arthur Eddington, notes that time is experienced differently by everyone -- yes, that word "relativity" again. It must be so, because my youngest daughter groaned to think of Christmas being so far away . . . while I groaned to think of it closing in on us so quickly.

I can't help but noticing how differently my children and I experience winter Sundays. They find them slow and deadly boring, while I race from the preparation of one meal to the next, trying to cram in as many chores as possible and rarely finding the time to even look at email. My progress through space is impeded by apples and breadrolls, while theirs resembles the wide, smooth cushions of our sofa.

One of the truest clichés about time is that the older you get, the faster the days and years go round and round . . . and yet the past from long ago can seem more present than the past of yesterday.

We have been making plans for my mother-in-law's 80th birthday, which takes place later this month, and I keep thinking about a picture that she recently showed me. My mother-in-law and her older sister are dressed up as miniature poacher and bookie for the Fancy Dress Class at a Championship Dog Show. (Their parents "showed" whippets.) A photograph was taken and featured in The Daily Mirror of May 12, 1933. Everything about this historical scrap interests me. Here's one choice detail: Inside the jacket of the poacher's costume, and fastened to the waistcoat, is the dead body of a real rabbit. Such authenticity! Can you imagine the five-year-old of today wagging around a dead rabbit? Also, how typical of the English sense of humour to dress up small children as such disreputable sorts! The fact that it takes place during the Depression adds another resonant layer of meaning. (On the other side of the picture is a caption describing the burning of 20,000 books at Berlin University at the behest of Dr. Goebbels. History that is just lying in wait for the five-year-old that is my Londoner mother-in-law.)

But this is the thing: I look at that picture and see a historical document, but my mother-in-law looks at it and feels the itch (still so real!) of the thick wool of her poacher suit of clothes. Although my daughter's "moment in time" does get swallowed, isn't it funny how certain moments play over and over in our memories . . . while other moments, and so many more of them, are lost forever? As we decorated the tree on Sunday, I couldn't help but notice this same phenomenon. I can remember the story behind ornaments from my childhood, or the ones that I acquired early in my marriage, but my mind is full of gaps when it comes to recent years. I can still remember lying under the tree, only five years old myself, and gazing at my favorite ornament -- a sweet-faced angel. The real experience, lost in time, has become reified through the repetition of memory. My children know the story as well as I do now, and ask me to trot it out -- if I don't automatically do so. Time moves on . . . but how we cling to it!

(I meant to write about the Chronophage ages ago, but I just couldn't find the time!)

Addendum: Elizabeth made a comment about How we are in history and not in it too, and it immediately made me think about the wonderful memoir and poem that Dick wrote recently. Please take a bit of time to read Stille Nacht.

25 comments:

Blue Blaze Irregular #1 said...

Loved the post. Reminded me of driving with my 3 year old nephew years and years ago. He got all excited. "JP! JP!"

"What is it" I asked

He pointed at a passing field and said in an awestruck voice, "Cows."

I guess Wordsworth and Coleridge are right, and we lose that sense of wonder at events as we age and times weighs us down. We only have the memories of when times and events were new and wonderful, when seeing a cow was seeing a cow for the first time. But those memories are pretty damn cool.

JaneyV said...

That last line made me smile! Every word that you said here resonated with me. In a meme I did recently I recalled my first visit to the library - the day I got my first card. I remember what I wore (It was bright pink, shiny and new), the weather (pouring rain as it only can in Limerick) and the books I chose (Miffy and Cat in a Hat). It's as clear as day. It was a day of excitement and novelty so it's no wonder I remember it but I remember with just as great clarity making the same journey on the way to the park by myself, running my hands along the railings of the Georgian houses. It was summer and I was very conscious of the fact that I was utterly joyful, for no other reason than I was. I remember thinking "I wonder if I'll always remember this moment?" and I have. I was no more than 5.

When time speeds up and we are lost in the swirl I find that I consciously stand outside of it and force myself to be slow. I think it's a lesson I learned from that 5-year-old on the way to the park; how to be in the moment. I think your daughter is very wise.

The chronophage is fascinating. I'm going to show it to Hubby later - he'll love it!

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Your baby girl is wise beyond her years, Bee!

The Chronophage is beautiful. I had to smile when the inventor pointed out that the whole LED bank "only uses 60 watts". That seemed very British--they are very good about conserving energy here, aren't they?

willow said...

Your are right. Time stops for no man, or woman, for that matter! Someone's turned up the speed on the treadmill and I am about to fly off. :^)

Lovely post.

Alyson (New England Living) said...

The Chronophage is so hypnotic, beautiful, and inventive. Can you imagine inventing something like that? Thinking that way? Amazing!

Your daughter is so wise. How many 10 year olds think about the shortness of a moment, of its fleeting nature? Sounds like she might be a lot like you.

I really loved this post. You always make me think, but not in a harsh way. Your words, your way of writting, is very soothing. Does that make sense? It does to me and I guess that's all that matters. :)

Brave Sir Robin said...

Bee,

First, let me say that clock is astonishing! As one who designs mechanical systems for a living, I stand in awe of the clock-maker, such a gift. That is truly an exceptional piece of work. It wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Wicked, would it?

Time is indeed the great paradox of our lives, certainly mine. I long for my work day to end, only to go home to my daily chores, and then get up and do it again. Day after day, rushing from one task to the next, while the grasshopper eats away my prime years. To what end?

I love your analogy of your daughter’s anguished waiting for Christmas while you dread its closeness. What a beautiful juxtaposition of perspective. Most things in life are relative. One of my favorite observations of that concept is from Annie Hall. It’s the scene where they are (separately) in therapy, and the therapist asks him/her, how often they have sex.

His answer: Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.
Her answer: Constantly. I’d say three times a week.

Well, that’s all the time I have at the moment, but I like to add that it’s wonderful to see you have a new post up, and you didn’t disappoint. It was worth the click just for the phrase, the maw of adolescence.

Beautiful post.

CashmereLibrarian said...

Wonderful. I remember looking at myself in the mirror when I was very young--before six--and wondering, where did I come from? who am i? how did i get here? Then life took over and it's rare now if I stop to think about that sort of thing. I'm afraid if I did my head might explode!
I've become increasingly frustrated at work recently, though, because I feel the passage of time and there are so many things I'd rather be doing/seeing/experiencing! Seems such a waste but i guess i need to eat.

Audrey said...

I was going to get all Joseph Heller on your butt (Yossarian famously working in a boring job so he could slow down time during the war...) but I'm (almost) struck dumb by the fact that your Christmas Tree is up. What?!

I'm sure I'll get over this detail in time...

Bee said...

Blue Blaze - How magical to see a cow and realize that it is a real creature and not just something in a picture book. I like the idea of the mind as a blank slate onto which experience and memory imprint themselves. That first cow! That first angel! (My mind feels like a scratched chalkboard which has been partially erased.) Your anecdote reminded me of one of the rare books in the Parker Library. It showed the earliest drawing of an elephant (from life) in England. How people must have gawped!

JaneyV - I've just read your book meme, and it's so charming. I love the fact that you can remember feeling "utterly joyful." I'm so glad that you took a few minutes to look at the Chronophage. Isn't the inventor's explanation of it fascinating?

JAPRA - Well, they certainly didn't stint on the money to build it . . . but it's good to know that it's energy-efficient. Our tour guide thought it was gaudy, but I thought it was a true work of art!

Willow - There are so many good "time" metaphors -- and treadmill seems to describe our way of life perfectly. Hope you can take some time out!

Alyson - In "real life," you can stand close to the Chronofage and really look that grasshopper in the eye. It is fascinating as a machine, but I loved the way it was designed to represent time. So cool! Like you, I bow down to those superior scientific brains.

Thanks for the very kind compliment about my "soothing" writing; funnily enough, I think that I know exactly what you mean (because I feel that way about Laurie Colwin.) Some writing voices have a specific emotional undertow to them -- of kindness, humour, understanding, cheekiness, whatever. I always look for that undertow -- and you have it, too, for me.

BSR - I'm sure that non-tech minds like mine can't even begin to appreciate what went into that marvellous clock. I hope that you can see it in person someday. Your observation about it belonging in "Wicked" was spot-on. The glittering gold gaudiness of it is quite striking in person.

I love those lines from Annie Hall . . . so true!

And yes, we all wish away our lives at times . . . I try not to.

Cashmere Librarian - Children are natural philosophers, I guess. It's sad that repetition dulls our sense of wonder. Sigh.

Audrey - Catch-22! One of my favorite college-era books! (must reread)
Are you really surprised that I have my Xmas tree up? I like a whole month of Xmas to anticipate . . . because that's the best part. (Youngest daughter has figured that one out, too.)

The Grandpa said...

Just a marvelous post, Bee. Thanks for giving us those few moments to reflect on time.

Braja said...

Hey, Bee: Grandpa sent me over and I do whatever he says :) I loved this post...it would take me too long to explain why. There was something in it of what you were describing...does that even make sense? Within your words was the essence of what you were trying to capture.

And as I remembered standing in front of my Gran's wardrobe with the door open, looking thru her things (which I always did as a child), I could smell them, smell the room, smell it all...and like you said, we never are in the moment again but we sure can be there...

Bee said...

Grandpa - Many thanks for the kind words and blog-reference.

Braja - I wish there was some satisfactory explanation for why certain experiences imprint themselves on our minds forever. Did you read Janey's comment?

BTW, your profile is fascinating.

Dick said...

A wonderful post, Bee. You capture so well the nature of time 'relativity'. I know all about that grasshopper!

But there is an interesting and invigorating side effect of having a second family, as I have. Alongside the sense of the massive acceleration of time's passing that comes with age there runs a paradoxical parallel sense of its slowing and stretching as I am constantly brought to perceive the world through the eyes of three very young children. This is a dual perception that, to an extent, all grandparents close to their grandchildren must encounter. But for me it's a constant. So being with my youngest, Maisie, who's 2, at this time so soon after my mother's death at 94 brings comfort because I can witness the symmetry that is contained within the family experience. My mother's peaceful passing is held in balance with Maisie's vigorous arriving.

Thanks for this post, Bee. It's helped me to develop a very recent line of thinking (even if that's not very evident above!)

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, you capture this period perfectly. It’s such a crunch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and then the rest of the winter goes so slow. I find the hours spent writing or catching up with a friend pass in minutes, and today paying bills and catching up on laundry after vacation will feel like days. The time spent on your blog is always well worth it. How funny that you haven’t had time to contemplate time!

Bee said...

Dick - You express yourself so beautifully, as always. I particularly liked that phrase describing the "massive acceleration of time's passing that comes with age." I suppose it makes sense mathematically, as each passing year is a proportionally smaller/less important bit of the whole . . . but it is just that sort of thing that people say will happen, and then (maddeningly) it does.

You make a good case for having children late in life! All of that youthful vigour balances out the sadness of one's contemporaries getting ill --and keeps the cycle going round, spring after winter and all.

Sarah - YES! Why does January have to be so looonnnggg. It is my birthmonth, but I've never liked it. I tire of the cold rather quickly; maybe because cold weather in Texas rarely lasts longer than three days? :)

Elizabeth said...

Such wonderful reflections on time which is indeed a sort of strange and flexible thing.
I once wrote a paper on St.Augustine's Concept of Time. It was appalling and made me cry. I hate philosophy.
You are right about your mother in law remembering the itchyiness of the coat.
How we are in history and not in it too.

Nimble said...

Hi Bee,

I have zero thoughts on time. I do like the gizmo’s shiny grasshopper and the slowing/quickening concept.

Lovely header you put up! I like it better than the greeeen.

Brave Sir Robin said...

Love the new look!!!

Audrey said...

Whoa! New look! Wasn't expecting THAT. Hmmm...It's very English. Pretty. From the Desk of...Very quaint or as the British say, twee. Are you going all native on me?

Bee said...

Elizabeth - Now you are making me wonder what is in St. Augustine that would make you cry! Or was it just the knotty frustration of trying to make sense of it?

Nimble - Do you really not think of TIME much? I am obsessed by it. I actually got up when my alarm clock went off this morning and was amazed to find how differently I experienced the morning . . . with time to dawdle instead of racing against the clock.

BSR - Thank you! I've been wanting a change from green.

Audrey - Perhaps a bit sadly, I've always been a tad prone to the "twee" and the pretty. I've been an Anglophile since the first time I read The Secret Garden. You are actually looking at the wallpaper in my study, which is an old 18th C. print called "Hummingbirds."

Susanna (A Modern Mother) said...

Great post.

Your daughter is wise beyond her years.

Yes, why is 31 less than 28?

Lucy said...

Beautiful post Bee, one of your best.

Lucy said...

Oh yes, meant to say, I love the new look!

Bee said...

Susanna - Thanks for visiting! I guess that 31 is less than 28 for the same reason that 40 keeps getting younger every year.

Lucy - Thank you, sweet friend.

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