To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. . . A time to weep, and a time to laugh. . . . A time to keep silence, and a time to speak . . . .
Ecclesiastes, Ch. 3, verses 1, 4, 7
When a people can laugh at themselves and laugh at others and hold all aspects of life together without letting anybody drive them to extremes, then it seems to me that that people can survive.
Vine Deloria, Jr., Chapter 7, “Indian Humor,” Custer Died for Your Sins
Over a lifetime of stern effort in concealing my sense of humor behind a façade of gloom, whenever I have forgotten myself and inadvertently laughed, I have instantly corrected for this lapse by glaring at anyone who is having fun.
Paradoxically, I am hoping that such a ridiculous statement will make you laugh.
As even the briefest interlude of observing me will reveal, I am physiologically programmed for cheer and merriment. And yet, during this troubled summer, I have hit rough spots when gloom takes over as much more than a façade. If you ever thought you could outperform me in the rapidity of a downward spiral in mood, the circumstances of 2020 have made me a far more challenging competitor in that arena.
And now you have the necessary background to understand why this “Not My First Rodeo” posting undertakes to cheer you—and me!—up.
With the pandemic, massive unemployment, a staggering economy, and enormous political strife converging to make humor seem like a cavalier dismissal of tragedy, I have embarked on a precarious undertaking.
Just as important, when an individual takes up a self-appointed mission to bring cheer to the downhearted, that uninvited transgression of personal boundaries can trigger more in the way of resentment than relief. Henry David Thoreau, who was witty if not merry, captured this dynamic in a perfect sentence: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”
So, you have been given fair warning: a woman is, in fact, coming to the screen in your house with the conscious design of cheering you up. Updating Thoreau’s response to our world in 2020, if you decide you should run for your life, don’t forget to take your mask.
Run That By Me One More Time?
I live within easy walking distance of one of humanity’s highest achievements in monitoring the passage of time: the cesium fountain atomic clock at Boulder’s National Institute of Standards laboratories.
The device that keeps the nation on course in the tracking of time is my nearby neighbor. This adds unavoidable comedy to the fact that my own ability to gauge and calibrate the passage of time becomes ever more disordered. Back in mid-March, I imagined that the transition to remote working and social distancing was going to ease the pacing of my life and permit me a better grasp on the passage of time. This expectation now registers as one of the innumerable ways in which I failed to predict the future.
Thanks to email, Zoom, and even an old-fashioned landline telephone (which is locked in a bitter, vindictive, and preposterous battle with my internet connection), a cascade of stimulating exchanges with very interesting people maintains my mental health. And, since I keep checking my calendar, I rarely miss any of those encounters. But a problem enters the picture when I try to tell someone else about a stimulating conversation I recently enjoyed.
“On Tuesday,” I’ll start to say, “I had the most fascinating conversation with a CU student who wrote her senior thesis on the eugenics movement in Colorado.” But then, after this promising beginning, I wander off into the labyrinth of time: “Actually, I don’t think it was Tuesday when I talked to her; it might have been Wednesday, but now I am thinking it was probably on Monday a week ago.”
Not an ounce of this chronological maundering is of any interest to the person who might have been intrigued by the history of the eugenics movement in Colorado. But by this point, there is no calling me back to that compelling subject.
I know I am far from the only one struggling with this problem. In truth, when it comes to navigating in time, nearly everyone I know is as addled as I am. I am not sure if knowledge of this convergence in confusion is a) a comfort and consolation, or b) an invitation to greater distress.
For now, let’s go with option a).
A Devil of a Time
As one of the few features of life on earth that pretends to move in a predictable and consistent manner, time should give order to our lives. Indeed, scientific instruments can gauge time with precision. Over the centuries, our species has relied on sundials, hourglasses, watches, and now iPhones to get a grip on time. And yet, even with the spiffiest of recent digital devices, we remain at time’s mercy. We should be able to count on it, but we cannot.
Every now and then, time pretends to be on our side, and our trust in it skyrockets. But this is a mistake in judgment. Even when on good behavior time retains the character of a trickster. At the drop of a hat, it will commute from our side to the dark side. It will poke along for a spell, barely seeming to be moving. And then it will suddenly put in the clutch, shift gears, press hard on the gas pedal, and rush by, pelting us with a flurry of events like the gravel thrown into motion in its wake.
Sometimes its changes in pacing are entirely mystifying. On other occasions, time speeds up and slows down in ways that are quite predictable.
If the deadline is bearing down and you are laboring away to get exactly the right contents and tone for a job application or a grant proposal, time is sure to speed up. And then, after you have submitted the application or the proposal and you are anxiously hoping for some good news, time will then slow down as you await the results. A day will masquerade as a week, and a month will masquerade as a year.
Or say you are in the chair at the dentist’s office; the hateful “rubber dam” has been put in place, and the drilling has begun. At that juncture, time will come to a full stop, only starting back up again when you are, at long last, heading out the door with your consolation prize of two small tubes of toothpaste. (Dr. Summers, this is in no way a criticism of you; you know that I am very grateful for your timeless help over the years!)
Not a single one of these shifts in pacing, with time in full trickster-operating-mode, will ever register on the cesium fountain atomic clock at NIST, but that does not make them less real.
Telling Time (a Thing or Two)
In 2020, time may seem unusually slippery and intolerably successful in evading our grasp.
This is not, actually, a new development. In many societies and cultures of the past, time has mocked human attempts at its categorization and calibration. Its power to mystify is unending. And yet some societies and cultures have performed better than others when it comes to conjuring up strategies to anticipate, recognize, and make peace with time’s shiftiness.
This brings us to a thought-provoking hypothesis that I put forward here for a trial run.
An ongoing, usually fruitless struggle with the intractability of time is a particular affliction of the English-speaking world.
Do I have evidence to support this hypothesis?
Review the figures of speech that the English language has imposed on time, and you will see that nearly all of them convey the same stance toward time. With slightly differing levels of insistence, they carry this implication: “Let’s get this darned thing under control.”
To return to my hypothesis: the English-speaking cohort of humanity has acted collectively to speak of time as if we could do what we want with it. We have worked hard to treat an extremely shifty feature of the universe as if it were a concrete, material object that we hold and shape. It is not so much that “time is on our hands,” but more that we want to believe “time is in our hands.”
In its multi-front verbal campaign to assert control over an abstraction, the English-speaking world hasn’t done a thing to diminish the power of time. But it has brought into being an entertaining domain of rhetoric and word choice!
Time and Again
At this point, we have to make a return visit to the origins of the title for this blog. I called it “Not My First Rodeo” because I have had more than my share of encounters with the issues that agitate the nation and the world in this time and era. Over the last quarter-century, I have repeatedly volunteered for the position of the moderator who genuinely welcomes opportunities to sit at the focal point where differing opinions collide. When remote working and social distancing put a moratorium on the Center of the American West’s robust line-up of public programs, it seemed as if a writing a blog would provide a channel to maintain and adapt my role as a moderator, continuing to speak with a temperate voice as controversies, altercations, and shouting matches proliferated.
And, on a parallel track, a good number of my experiences in the past matched up with issues of concern in the present. When people living in residences for the elderly proved particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, my volunteer activity back in college, visiting retirement complexes and nursing homes, escalated in relevance. Similarly, when Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman faced penalties for his brave testimony at the impeachment hearing, my small-scale experiences as a whistleblower gave me a foundation for expressing my admiration for that distinguished public servant. And, in the course of every day, I am forever trying to think of historical perspectives that might help us cope with the troubles of the present and thereby deliver on the slogan of the Center of the American West, “Turning Hindsight into Foresight.”
And, coming next, radiating relevance, is a reactivation of a plan I made in the mid-1970s that is, at long last, seeing the light of day.
Any reader burdened with a heightened sensitivity, or even an allergy, to puns should ingest this next section in small doses.
In the Fullness of Time
In the late 1970s, I was a happy participant in the Midway Caravan in New Haven, Connecticut. A remarkable man named Bill Carpenter was our leader, and our motley (in every sense!) crew often appeared, dancing merrily and chaotically at local fairs and festivals, where we were arrayed in blindingly colorful clothes and in whiteface and grease paint. We also performed an occasional play, and people who saw our one-of-a-kind interpretation of “St. George and the Dragon” probably had trouble forgetting it, as hard as they might have tried.
While I was a part of this unusual group, I began thinking about the unusual wording that English-speaking people turn to when they refer to time. Presuming on the good nature of my comrades in the Midway Caravan, I began laying out a scenario for a performance called “The Time Pageant.” We may have had a couple of early-stage rehearsals, but other ideas pushed ahead in the line, and no audience ever saw “The Time Pageant.”
But now I am making up for lost time.
Readers, remember that I have been waiting for nearly five decades to get “The Time Pageant” released from dormancy. It will take something short of five minutes to read this, so please try to stick it out to the not-very-bitter end. That is, in the manner of rodeo, please complete the ride. And then, to evoke the words of a considerably more accomplished playwright, “When you talk about this, and you will, be kind.”
“The Time Pageant”
Voice-over: It’s high Time for the main character of this pageant to appear.
[Time walks out on the stage, looking nervous.]
Voice-over: The Time has arrived. (Alternatively, for performers who are OK with a small degree of indelicacy, The Time has come.)
Time: You’d be wise to keep a close eye on me. I can shift in an instant from being a good Time to being a bad Time. Whenever I want, I can turn into crunch Time, spare Time, real Time, down Time, quality Time, leisure Time, full Time, part Time, prime Time, and (better be braced for this) mean Time.
Law Enforcement Officer [enters]: I’m here to keep track of Time.
Time: You’ve caught me as a bad Time. [Time looks more nervous and edges off-stage.]
Law Enforcement Officer: Uh oh, I’ve lost Time.
Search and Rescue Volunteer [hurries onto the stage with ropes, stretcher, carabiners, pitons, harness): I’ll find Time!
[The Search and Rescue Volunteer goes off-stage, finds Time, and takes Time back to centerstage.]
Time: I was caught in a Time warp, and I am in bad shape.
Emergency Room Doctor [arrives with a ventilator]: Time has hardly had Time to breathe. But I am here in the nick of Time. I will be able to save Time. [She does.]
[An Investor and a Banker enter in heated dispute.]
Investor: I want to buy Time.
Banker: You’re too late. I have already borrowed Time.
Stress Management Therapist [enters and intervenes in the dispute]: Neither of you can take Time. Time now feels wasted and needs a Time-Out. If you continue to treat Time with so little respect, Time will tell.
Marathon Runner [arrives frustrated by recent cancellation of numerous races and pays no attention to the Stress Management Therapist]: I am determined to race against Time. I am in prime condition, and I know I will beat Time.
Time: That does it. NO BEATING! It’s Time to hit the road. This connection is totally Timed-out.
All of the Cast Members (except Time) [speaking with one voice]: We thought we had all the Time in the world, but appearing in this pageant has turned out to be tiresome and Time-consuming. Not a one of us thinks that this pageant will stand the test of Time. We have caucused among ourselves, and we think the Time has come to kill Time.
Time [in a tone of resignation]: To a degree, I really don’t care if you do. I thought I was in the right place as the right Time, but now I wouldn’t give any of you the Time of day. But I am still going to run out. [Time runs out.]
All the Cast Members (except Time): Where did the Time go?
Time Works Wonders
Millions of Americans are currently facing off for a showdown with Time.
That statement could use some decoding.
In the Covid-19 era, many of us are compulsively, repetitively, endlessly asking ourselves (as well as anyone else who will put up with our obsession), “How much longer will we have to live like this? When is this going to end?”
This question never yields anything remotely like an answer.
Locked in a fight with time, we make urgent, non-negotiable demands for a forecast of the future. A three-word platitude that might be helpful—“Haste makes waste”—appears to have taken early retirement. History does offer a sizable set of case studies where haste, in response to a dilemma, a calamity, or a catastrophe, has been wise and necessary. But history also offers a sizable set of case studies when haste did make waste, and when impatience proved to be a far-from-ideal framework for foresighted decision-making.
So here’s the experiment I am proposing: when my fellow citizens are understandably overcome with impatience, and find themselves winding up for another agitated round of asking the questions (“How much longer do we have to live like this? When is this going to end?”), I would like them to shift their attention to the proposition that the English-speaking sector of the human species has embraced an exaggerated belief in its power to control time.
And in the next step, we would see what might happen if we lowered our expectation that time is going to submit to our control if we just speak of it with sufficient exertion of confidence in our mastery.
The pandemic has given us an extraordinary opportunity to pay attention to and rethink our relationship to time. Even though it is utterly ridiculous—actually, because it is utterly ridiculous, The Time Pageant can challenge the conventional wisdom that now sets the terms in our familiar language, permitting us to see the options and alternatives that old habits of mind concealed from us.
When you have immersed yourself in the words and phrases that we mobilize when we talk about time, here is the one that haunts you:
Time heals all wounds.
You have to hope.
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