Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy Independence Day!

The well known Christmas azaleas
Today is Independence Day. Congratulations to all of us.

In American Samoa, today is two days, as the islanders decided that the calendar should go from December 29th to December 31st, with no December 30th in between. They can do that, and they did. As the Christian Science Monitor put it, they "lost December 30, 2011 forever." That's right: it's gone, and it's NEVER COMING BACK! What's more, they lost Friday.

"The time present is seldom able to fill desire or imagination with immediate enjoyment, and we are forced to supply its deficiencies by recollection or anticipation." -- Samuel Johnson, The Rambler #203

We just had Christmas, of course, and I am sure you all enjoyed my constipated philosophical traction-pull on time and tide. Based on the number of comments I got, I would say that it managed to make a month at Mal-Wart shopping for Air Jordans seem like a healthy occupation. It's ok. At least I agree with you: it was boring. This time, I promise to only be repetitive.

Do you remember December 31st, 1999 or 2000? Did you feel a tingle when the clock switched from 11:59 to 12:00 AM? If so, were you touching an electrical wire or engaging in a sex act? When you woke up the next morning, did you find that all of your prior notions were subtly different? Did you find that your attitudes toward, say, cutting and pasting information in a business report or a scholarly study were softened? Did you notice that your memory was worse (permanently, I mean)? Did you say, "Hey! I'm not in the same country I went to bed in! I feel like the nation-state has lost its boundaries as a meaningful geopolitical unit?"

I ask this because, just as "by the year 2000, the #1 problem for Americans will be too much leisure time," so also "in the twenty-first century" everything has changed. You didn't notice? You thought that these things were slowly moving, some on a glacier and others on a surfboard? Well, that's because you weren't looking at the calendar the right way. You were being Samoan.

Call this the "Samoan version" of the same photo.
I don't blame you if you ignore the quotations I sometimes include in my essays. Johnsonian quotations in particular can sound so balanced as to be self-negating and nugatory. However, his quote this time is about the present and how we're not busy enough (by the year 1800, excess leisure will be the #1 problem for the English, someone surely predicted) to occupy our full attention, and so we either remember the past or dream of the future. For Sam the young man, that was a cue to wag a finger at the folly of vain imaginings and delusions. For me, though, it's something else.

I've made the point many times that you rarely or never see a map with "You Are Here" at the corner. That label is almost always in the center, because the sneaky truth is we make the maps, not nature. The terrain is as it is, but we organize it for our maps, and we make sure to spin the world's expanse out from our observing pens. The map is a reference in two senses -- we refer to it, but also it is a marker of a spot we occupied when we constructed it.

The calendar is a reference as well. Time is the thing we live in, through, and with. It courses through the blood firing out from the heart and fitfully returning. It allows all that metabolism to take place. It makes for growing and growing old. It says warm and cold. It doesn't care about our calendars. Instead, our calendars try desperately to match it.

He put away childish things

The New Year comes along, by the calendar, but nothing will change this time more than another time. Any given packet of time that we call by name is just an agreement -- a handshake whereby we agree on when to arrive and depart the party. However, we can use these names because we all learned them, all agreed to them. If the town clock were ten minutes fast, and every citizen set his watch by it, the clock would not be ten minutes fast until someone from another town came by.

Samoa has done what any one may do. They have decided which position in the calendar they will agree to. They had been in the United States's day, and now they wish to be in Australia's day. The BBC World Service has been interviewing people and expecting them to act the way that the British did when they updated their calendar by Act of Parliament. in 1752, when the British were supposed to have rioted and demanded their eleven days of life back. The Samoans seem to be "happy campers" with regard to the calendar change, and well they should be. They have made their own decision on where they are, and when.

Time as it goes through us, as nature makes it and as it pumps through the veins of the world, cannot be argued with. As I grow older, and as my charge has new complaints, I know that there is no arguing with biology, no prevailing on time. If the weather says that we will have water and sun enough for azaleas on Christmas, then so it will be, and if January 1 happens, the world does not know or care.

We are not twenty-first century women and men, nor twentieth century. Like calendar dates, those are references -- words meant only to themselves (the words) stick to one position while their subjects (time, nature, people) move on. You are free, reader! No Mayan, and no abacus clack of days, can master time as it flies, as it slows, as it endures, as it pulses and beats upon our broken shores, nor signal when we recollect or anticipate. We are free of dates, days, and time even as much as we are their subjects.

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