is a heartless
what I long to remember,
in excruciating detail,
what I beg to forget.
I like to play this little game; it’s simple math, but I must have some kind of instinctive need for perspective, a desire to understand my position in the universal timeline. It goes like this…We all walk around with our personal little history. For those like me, that history spans the launch of Sputnik to Hillary Clinton winning the Democratic nomination for President. Between these points is where the game is most intimately played as it draws from memory, experience and a couple billion heartbeats, but in no way am I limited by my brief existence. The Time Traveler recognizes no such boundaries. The present is the only thing constantly moving. The past, despite memory’s power to color and alter our viewpoint, is inherently set, prepared for our visit, and the future is waiting patiently for us to catch up.
You’re a seven-year-old kid in a time when the Beatles are on Ed Sullivan, the New York Mets are moving into a brand new Shea Stadium and the World’s Fair is in Flushing, Queens. If you took the subway to the fair grounds it cost you $.15. President Kennedy had been assassinated less than a year prior, WWII had ended less than 20 years before, and the musicals of choice at your elementary school were by Rogers and Hammerstein. “Ooh–w-w-Oak-lahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain…”
Viewed from a 2016 perspective, all of these events happened a long time ago. WWII is ancient history, having ended more than 70 years ago, but in 1964 the Kennedy assassination was still an open wound, more recent than the Sandy Hook shootings are today. D-Day was fresher than the Gulf War is in our memories, and as for those old stale musicals, they were more contemporary than a Tupac rap would be today.
As part of a Shirley Temple film marathon a few months ago, I watched The Littlest Rebel and thought, “Wow! The Civil War…that was a long time ago!” But, playing my game I realized that at the time the film was made in 1935, there were people still alive who had experienced it directly, people who had been born into slavery, and that the distance from the end of the Civil War to when the film was produced was shorter than the distance from the film to today.
Michael Jackson’s Thriller was released 33 years ago. Does that seem right? That’s the distance from the Great Depression to the Vietnam War, from the Holocaust to The Killing Fields, the distance from a slide rule to the iPhone.
DEGREES OF SEPARATION
Six degrees of separation is the theory that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world, so that a chain of “a friend of a friend” statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps.
In my infinite wisdom, I misinterpreted this theory as a generational link, whereby one could trace their lineage back to the time of Christ in six generations. Of course, this is absurd. Ma and Pa Kettle would be challenged to prove out this faulty calculation. However, stupidity sometimes breeds insight, in this case leading me to view generational connections, and our personal histories, in a different way.
I have always been amused by the circumstance by which I shared many of the elementary school teachers who taught my mother a generation before, most notably a social studies teacher named Abigail Babbitt, a spinster who taught in the Roaring 20’s and had teaching materials that outlined all 48 states in the union. So much fodder for my game!
The true spirit of the six degrees theory, I suppose, is to emphasize the closeness of mankind, but no amount of email and social network linkage changes the reality of the average person’s small circle of family, friends and acquaintances, or the transience of memory. Most of us have a close relationship with one or both parents, a good number of us have also been close to one or more of our four grandparents, and likely only a select few have memories of a great-grandparent. We share the rest of our life overlapping those of our extended “family.” As we pass, one-by-one, so does our memory and the imprint of our existence. This can, however, be liberating; the same limitations of memory assure that all failures, disappointments, and embarrassing moments will fade over time.
Wealth, prestige and fame provide only a temporary reprieve from this immutable law. What millennial can’t name the cast of Saved By The Bell? Is there a person under the age of forty who understands all the fuss over the passing of Muhammad Ali? Does anyone remember Mary Pickford? Who will survive to refute Al Gore’s claim that he invented the internet?
So far, I’ve expressed a typically American point of view. Despite that slant, I realize I’m not the center of the universe. OK, I really am the center of MY universe, but nobody else cares about that. We all know that Beyoncé is the center of the universe. It’s true! Twitter, Facebook, the television and newspapers all tell me so.
The life of an individual is short…American History spans only several hundred years, and the recorded history of Man only several thousand. Dust in the wind to coin a cliché, a pimple on a dinosaur’s ass. When you look at the estimated age of Earth and the universe as we know it, 4.5 billion years, now you’re talkin’! The passage of millions of years is hard to grasp and a billion years is nearly incomprehensible. Extinction events are measured in durations of millions of years. How can something that drags over that length of time be classified as an “event?” Beyoncé performing at Madison Square Garden is an event.
At absolute zero, allowing for a certain amount of resistance, electricity travels through a piece of wire, or a microprocessor circuit, at nearly the speed of light. The best visual illustration I’ve seen of the difference between a millisecond, a microsecond and a nanosecond, all very tiny measurements of time, was by a professor who used lengths of wire to show how far electricity would travel over each time interval. For a millisecond he held up a piece of wire a few inches long. For a microsecond, he lifted a long length of wire rolled into many coils. Finally to show how much further electrons would flow in a nanosecond, he open the classroom door and rolled in a huge, heavy spool full of densely wound wire.
Playing a variant of my game, a nanosecond (ns) is a SI unit of time equal to one billionth of a second One nanosecond is to one second as one second is to 31.71 years. This all still seems limiting for the Time Traveler; the concept is too linear. Luckily, time also travels in parallel paths, those paths being the tiny little histories, each of us carry through our day. If a bit more than half of the world’s population–at last count, over 7.1 billion–kept a diary for just one year, we would have the equivalent of 4.5 billion years of recorded history. That should keep someone busy reading until the sun becomes a Red Giant and scorches the Earth. No fear! I’m sure by that time, we will all be happily settled on the planet Beyoncé in the far away Western Kanye galaxy.