The Topic At Hand: Seconds

My parents asked us to dinner maybe a month ago.  After we ate, I started telling them–believe it or not, my mother, at least, likes to hear this kind of thing–about an old t.v. show transcript that I’d stumbled onto recently: a Nova program from 1981 called “It’s About Time.”  I mentioned a couple things from it that fascinated me–like that the speed of light may be the only really static thing in the universe, since everything else, even space, even time, sometimes jiggles in surprising ways.  I also told them how the show ended–with the actor playing St. Augustine, an early western thinker about time, saying, just as the real St. Augustine had written in his Confessions centuries before, that as long as nobody asked him what time was, he knew, but as soon as someone did, he didn’t.

My dad said that sounded like what my five year-old son, Lear, had recently told him about some of the magic tricks the boy makes up all the time: “These are the kind of tricks that are better if you don’t watch them.” Now looking back, it’s kind of hard to get that joke, but that night it played funny, the conversation blew up, and Lear smiled.  Yet as I started thinking later, time is maybe the opposite of those tricks of Lear’s, since if you think of time as being somehow trick-like, as I’d go on to discover that a great many people have through the centuries, it strikes me as a kind of trick that gets better, as in spookier, the closer you watch.  To slightly warp a line from John Mellencamp’s new (and terrific) album, one of the best sustained meditations on mortality that I’ve ever seen (or heard):  “[Time] is an abstraction, and it tries to fool us all / And it’s working so far, it seems.”

He actually wrote that line to be about the trickiness of “Life,” but it applies to “Time” just as well, not least because time and life are so often impossible to shake apart.  Both are not only weirder than we suppose, but weirder than we can suppose, to slightly skew what J.B.S. Haldane said about life in Possible Worlds and Other Papers, over eight decades ago. If I really don’t have time, I have nothing else on earth, either, of course, but in what sense do I really ever have something that I can’t in any way quantify and the last of which could disappear, literally in a heartbeat, without so much as a funny-paper “poof”?  My heart could pop like bubble gum before I finish typing this line. Or not (old joke). George Santayana:  “The essence of nowness runs like the fire along the fuse of time, but the particular spark is different at each point.”  Until with a bang, a flash, the whistling fffffffft! of a dud firecracker, some other noise or no noise at all, now becomes then.  For well over a decade, I’ve had it bouncing around in my head that I someday wanted to write something that would start roughly like this (who knows if I’ll ever get that done, and it seems to fit here):  “Time’s the big trick, the one nobody jumps.  They’ve tried to say what time is.  They were wrong, and you know it.  I’ll say what time is–time’s what you don’t have.”

And it was cheerful thoughts like these, relaunched by that random talk over cherry cobbler, that pulled me back into the wake of what Twelfth Night‘s Feste calls “the whirligig of time.”  Few things in my life have made me feel like I’m fading faster than getting an inkling of how much has been said and written about time–but once you start toying around in Timeland, it’s hard to stop.  A Shakespeare professor once pointed out in a class I took that it’s no one’s imagination–Shakespeare’s plays really do work very hard to keep from being explained away, to stay, to varying degrees, irreducibly mysterious.  That seems a bias that Shakespeare–often seen as the “Mother Nature’s Son” of poets (John Milton, for instance, wrote in “L’Allegro” of him “warbl[ing] his native wood-notes wild”)–might have borrowed from life, which features a seemingly built-in, time-bound tendency to defuse any conclusive wrap up of its ultimate workings and meaning, whether wryly absurdist, deeply religious, or something in between.  But as impossible as finding the provably “ultimate answer” is, it’s just as impossible for humans not to look for one.  In the end, if not long before, once, if not many times, we each take a leap at understanding life’s ways–a leap of faith, of “logic,” of lunacy, or of some other stripe, entirely.  But a leapless life, lived with the seamlessly defensible “good sense” of a syllogism, is simply not a live option on Planet E., as much as we might like it to be.  And that’s largely thanks to the way what Pythagoras calls “the soul of this world, ” time, eerily floats by:  time, the great unknowable that makes us, shapes us, glides us onward, upward, and ultimately elsewhere–time, the mystery through which we move.

Among the fascinating flashes that have leapt out in these last few dizzying weeks, as I spent every spare moment of an otherwise vexing stretch reading and thinking about time, were these:  “Dinosaurs are real but our death is not,” at least based on the the-past-is-real-but-the-future-is-not premise that underprops the growing-universe theory; Benjamin Lee Whorf‘s famous study of the Hopi culture incredibly reveals that their language somehow works while containing “no words, grammatical forms, construction or expressions that refer directly to what we call ‘time,’ or to past, present, or future…,”which gave me a funny kind of hope; and the recent work of physicist Carlo Rovelli reprises in a scientific context a concept long popular in religions, ranging from Buddhism to Christian Science and beyond, namely that time is nothing more than a trick of the mind:  “At realities deepest level, then, it remains unknown whether time will hold strong or melt away like a Salvador Dali clock.”  As the Amanda Gefter article where that quotation appears, “Is Time An Illusion?,” adds, though thinking about time is taxing, if Rovelli is correct, and “Time is the effect of our ignorance,” when and if we ever really understand how it works, “time might simply disappear.”

"Moment Of Explosion" by Salvador Dali (1954)

"Moment Of Explosion" by Salvador Dali (1954)

Which brings us almost back to where we started–to Time as Trick, now a type of trick that we accidentally play on ourselves because our minds are simply too limited to do otherwise; in this view, “time is all a matter of perspective–not a feature of reality but a result of [our] missing information about reality.”  But do such approaches stretch the concept of “trick”–or in the case of this article’s title, “illusion”–until it snaps?  The effects of time, whatever time is, are surely no one’s imagination, making time a funny kind of trick (except in certain religious contexts, where the whole visible world is cast as a kind of trick-driven parody of paradise).  Years ago, I saw a fragment of a very old movie called The Miracle Man, from which only like eleven seconds survive.  In those seconds, a fake healing inspires the startling real healing of a crippled boy.  If time is just a trick, are its everyday effects, which all of us see every day, quasi-miracles that time’s trickery somehow makes leap to life?  Alternately, Arthur Clarke has argued that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”; if so, maybe an arcane science, intrinsic to the fabric of the physical world itself, somehow enables what time does; or maybe in the same way that I’ve read that light shows signs of simultaneously being both a particle and a wave–or of flickering back and forth from one state to the other with incalculable speed–time somehow does something similar, instantaneously flashing from one state to the other like a neon light every split second, a reality one instant, “just an idea” the next.  Who knows.  But one thing I’m certain of–as weird and unlikely as those random thoughts likely sound, the reality of how time works, knowable or not, is far weirder.

What does feel trick-like to me, where time is concerned–and since I can’t yet articulate all this fully, please briefly grant me the Magic 8 Ball’s wry license to let the reasons slide–are the clownish means we use to make us feel like we somehow have time tamed, the bewildering jumble of competing calendars and clocks, most of which relate to the near-infinite complexity of time’s passing as the ape-thrown bone relates to the fantastical space ship it suddenly loops up and becomes in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  As I was recently reminded, when featured in ads, the hands of clocks are very frequently set for 10:10, not because, as many apparently sincerely believe, that was the time that Lincoln and/or King and/or Kennedy was killed, nor entirely for practical reasons, such as best displaying the features of a given watch, but so that the clocks’ faces will  appear to smile, making the watches and clocks for sale look happy, once someone had decided that the old default display time, 8:20, had made clocks look too “frowny.”  That practice provides a living metaphor for how our culture likes to treat time (also notable is the way the term “timepiece” seems to imply obliquely that whatever watch I have on, which I could just as well just have fished out of a box of Lucky Charms, is somehow made of the self-same numinous stuff whose ineffable flow it plays at chronicling).  But all those “untimely” monkeyshines aside, whether he’d have agreed or not, I think William Faulkner got it exactly right in The Sound and the Fury:  “Time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.”

Among the uncountable ways that I’m no St. Augustine,  there’s the fact that I never plan to write a book called Confessions, but I have one to make now.  Also unlike Augustine, I don’t begin to know what time is, even when nobody asks me, as what you’ve just read proves.  But I think that may be less true of my son.  Not long before he faded from three to four, he surprised me by telling me why he’d been upset and refused to talk while we’d walked home together from preschool that day:  “I was mad because I don’t want to get older.  It’s not special to me, and it’s not fair.”

Those words reminded me of another child who “knew that she must grow up.  You always know when you are two.  Two is the beginning of the end.”  I was amazed that my young son, who had never even seen Disney’s candy-coated version of the boy who could fly, let alone the one-of-a-kind book that J.M. Barrie’s words above come from, had independently come to such a striking conclusion, at an age when I was still getting my church pants pockets gummed shut with Silly Putty, which I could never quite remember to stick back into the plastic egg.

Like probably anyone who’s ever read Wordsworth’s wonderful little poem about a person who hopes his heart will always leap up when he sees a rainbow, just as it did when he was a kid, I’ve wondered what the line, “The Child is the Father of the Man,” could mean.  Maybe, I now think, things like this:  the Child just squarely faces what the Man scribbles silly essays not to see.



Rabbit image by Mykl Roventine

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    • Jane Summer

      I really love this piece. It's intelligent, meditative and yet playful, and the tone is perfect for talking about time–a topic that scholars and lay people alike will each have to untangle on their own because, as the piece points out, there is no definitive answer. If there is anything weirder and yet more essential than time, I have no idea what it would be.

      On another note, I love this writer's style; it strikes me as unique. It's a strong yet humble, layered, eclectic voice. I respect Hemingway, but I think he's made many lesser writers think they can write completely forgettable sentences and pass them off as good writing. We seem to accept that a poetic voice will challenge us, but if a prose voice is anything but bland, we cry foul. Why? Are we really that lazy?

      Plus, I'm beyond tired of dry academic articles masquerading as personal essay writing, and I'm equally tired of essayist who act like they have found the Rosetta Stone of existence based on one personal experience, without providing any insight to the reader of a historical, cultural or literary context. Don't we all know that life is a mixture of the sublime and the pedestrian, of exclusive, five star restaurants but also the messy fun of homemade toothpick cherry-red ice pops? I wish more intelligent, reflective, well-read writers would stop being so snobby and throw the likes of Aristotle in with Magic 8-balls a heck of a lot more often. Aristotle helps us understand life…but it seems to me that life helps us understand Aristotle, too.

      Thank you, Eric, for writing–and don't let anyone water you down your voice or make you doubt that the silly and the serious can work together beautifully.

    • Eric, have you read Longitude<img src=”″ width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″ alt=”” style=”border:none !important; margin:0px !important;” />? I thought of it while reading this… time as a phenomenon of both nature and culture.

      Also, I wonder what time analog clocks were set to when they were the only kind sold in stores? 10:10 perhaps, as a sort of smile?

    • You talk about time like it’s equivalent to race: though based on something integrated with all human life and interaction, it’s socially constructed, and defined by each in different and personal ways.
      Time, I think, is best defined as the passing of sequential events. Time passes because this happened, then this happened, then that happened. Yet, the experience of the time going slowly or quickly is completely subjective. We believe our dreams take time to unfold, though they may very well flash into our memory in one single moment, then only take time to recount or piece together.
      Children are certainly the most salient indicator of time. My nephew is 6 weeks old, and I’ve never been more attuned to what happens in 6 weeks as I have been since he was born.

    • Tara

      Wow, this is great. I'm going to have to read it through again because you've packed it so full of interesting things to think about. It also sounds like your son has the perfect grandparents for him.

      I like how you get at our weird relationships with time, our – you, your son, Augustine, people shopping for clocks, etc. Some people have this incredible memory for dates and connecting even insignificant events to the time they happened (Oct 3, 1996 was cloudy with rain in the early afternoon). I don't, I have to keep an agenda to remember anything. Is it just a memory thing, or is it a relationship thing?

      I usually think of time as something we live in but your essay makes me want to try to think about it as something that lives in/through us, writing itself on our bodies and then burying us when it's done with us.

    • beverlyeicher

      “time is what you don't have” or maybe you do. the trick only works if you are not looking.
      time surrounds us, envelops us and asks nothing in return. Your thoughts on time
      seem to speak to us all.

    • jennifersims

      My husband, Bill, has been reading “A Short History of Time” by Steven Hawking, and I must say, Bill talks like this when he's trying to explain what Hawking is saying. It doesn't seem linear, and maybe that's the point. Now and then I get glimpses. . . !

    • I found to be quite useful.nThis is really fantastic advice, thank you so much.

    The Author

    Eric Eicher

    Bill Cosby once said this on a long-ago comedy album: "I started out as a child." As it turns out, Eric Eicher did, too. In the years since, he's somehow become, among other things, a father, a teacher, a writer, and a sleight-of-hand performer, with a Master's in English from the University of California at Berkeley and a doctorate in English from the University of Kansas. His major literary interests are Shakespeare (especially King Lear), the essay, and the nonsense of Stephen Leacock and Edward Lear.

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