Perception of Time

It begins in January.  I climb on a pony – or ostrich or tiger – listening to the calliope and waiting for the bell.  When it rings, the carousel slowly gears up, with rasping effort, to turn.  At the start, it turns very slowly, as if it’s pulling out of the grip of the past year.  It gathers speed gradually through April until, at last, by summertime, it slips free from the past and acquires a momentum that carries it forward with heightened determination.  September arrives, and the acceleration intensifies.  I must grasp the pole, even as I lean out to resist the pull.  I give in to it and gallop forward, circling faster and faster.  Suddenly I sense the momentum dissipating. It is the end of December and the carousel slows to a stop, allowing me time to buy a ticket for another ride.  This is how I experience the passage of a year.

Though many researchers have explored the notion that time is perceived to pass more rapidly as we age, that phenomenon has escaped me entirely.  The metaphor of my perception of time has remained the same for over 40 years, and its paces haven’t varied.  My moods tend to match the turning of the carousel, with the fall being my happiest, most energetic time of year.  Why that should be is unclear, but perhaps it dates from my school-going years: I always looked forward to going back to school, from first grade to the beginning of each year of law school. It was the prelude to new possibilities.

When I was in elementary school, I remember the annual ritual of shopping for new clothes with my mother.  On the first day of class, I would wear my favorite new outfit, feeling very spiffy.  Even that year when the temperature was still in the 90’s, I wore my new red wool pleated skirt and navy blue sweater with a white trimmed collar.  It didn’t matter that I was over-dressed for the hot day — I was excited about the newness of the school year and my clothes matched my mood.

More observant Jews might also note that autumn is the sacred time of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Perhaps there is some primeval association in my soul, but I don’t recognize it.  The September exhilaration I experience is more tamped down by the High Holy Days.  I sense that I’ve been found wanting on the spiritual plane. And, in recent years, the grief evoked by the Yizkor services has become more intense, denting my high autumnal spirit with the remembrance of losses.  So, no, I don’t think the Holy Days of the Jewish calendar account for my perception of September’s velocity.

I don’t simply perceive time in an experiential sense, I also visualize it.  There is ample research into charts, graphs and symbols that enable a student of most any discipline to grasp change over a specified time period.  They may cover millennia, eras, centuries or seconds. Considerable thought has gone into designing a look that conveys the evolution, growth and maturation of our universe, civilizations and bodies.  It is challenging to compress time periods that vastly exceed our individual lifetimes into a visual without obliterating the sense of the tempo of change. Many such charts invite us to leap over 100 and 1000 year stretches to understand an historical or geographic phenomenon.

But time is lived hour by hour, day by day, week by week. And this is how I visualize it: I can see the weeks of a year, unfolding accordion-style.  The closest weeks are fully open, and the days are individuated.  I can infer the degree of their proximity by the clarity of lettering and the detail of hours.  The furthest reaches of the calendar are still folded tightly but, as we move forward in time, the closest days drop out of the picture, and the later ones unfold. I can tune into this visualization at any time of the year; although it is grounded in the calendar, it is continuous.  It is the foreseeable future.

Both my experience and visualization of time offer comfort.  The recurrence of the carousel cycles, and the continuity of the accordion book, reassure me in difficult moments that I will get through them, that  time is my most reliable friend.  When I was a homesick teenager at a summer boarding school, I could see when I was going home. When a person dear to me died, I understood I would not be stuck in that excruciating moment forever. The carousel would keep turning, pausing and accelerating.  The days would unfold spontaneously.

On joyful days, the experience and visualization of time hold out the excitement of the next milestone or occasion — or the exaltation of pure possibility.  Their parameters outline the future, giving me confidence that I’m on track, even though the details – people, places, things — that will fill the seasons and the weeks remain to be discovered. I am in motion, moving time and again to a good place before moving forward.  I am charmed anew by the exuberance of the carousel’s calliope.

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception,” wrote Aldous Huxley.  Perhaps the carousel and the accordion book allow me to pass from the known to the unknown without qualms.   Perhaps they substitute for faith.


The Guns of August

My intention in reading The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman was to understand why World War I began in 1914.  This has been on my mind since viewing the spectacular display of 888,246 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London in August 2014.  Each poppy represented a British soldier killed in the war that destroyed a generation.  Eighteen million persons in military and civilian life died in that dreadful war; 23 million more were wounded. It seemed to me impossible that such consequences could flow simply from the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by a Serbian terrorist (or patriot, depending on one’s loyalties), but that was all I retained from a world history survey course 50 years ago.

This is not an essay about the causes of World War I.  Suffice it to say, that the network of alliances and ententes that crisscrossed borders and continents from 1870 – a somewhat arbitrary starting point – to 1914 is confounding. Ms. Tuchman doesn’t purport to explore all of them, or to mine all of the history of the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Balkans – I should stop there, for the list of all of the nations engulfed in this conflagration is almost the entire world.  What she does is dissect the conduct of the first month of battles in August 1914 that set the course for the following four years of death and destruction.  I am not the first to observe that it is a brilliant day-by-day reconstruction of the key actors’ strategies, decisions and behavior.

It is difficult to absorb the details of the attacks, counterattacks, retreats and other actions of those 31 days.  I found it impossible to master Tuchman’s maps of troop movements (which my Kindle didn’t facilitate).  I found myself re-reading sections to be sure I had correctly connected a particular General and his army, and had to do some peripheral research about brigades, corps and divisions to appreciate the significance of some events.  I was overwhelmed by detail and can’t recite the chronology with confidence.  Even the names of some of the key players at key moments are a bit muddled.

Nevertheless, after finishing the book, from prologue to epilogue, I felt vastly better educated about how it all came about.  Further, as I distance myself more from the particular pages, I feel that I’ve learned or been reminded of some important basics about the affairs of men (they were all men at the time, of course).  Perhaps I knew some of these things before reading The Guns of August, but I write them down now because I don’t want to lose sight of them again. They are not unique to me or especially profound observations, but they help me find relevance in a time that otherwise feels very distant.

Langfollow’s List of Lessons from The Guns of August

People looking for a fight will find it.  And may drag in people who aren’t.

Plans based on how things used to be are doomed.

Human behavior can be worse than imaginable.

People crave inspiration.

People tell barefaced lies to create their own narrative.

Fake news is not new.

Glorious reputations may disguise incompetence.

Knowing when to be flexible is a critical skill of discernment.

Paying close attention avoids mistakes.

People rise above their limits to achieve a goal that matters to them.


That, in short, is both the good news and the bad news from 31 days of August 1914.