The turning of the year

>> Thursday, January 01, 2009

And then it was 2009 in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I live. One moment it was one year and then in another moment, poof, like that, another year. The one moment didn't seem all that different from the one that preceded it, but there it was.

I have to confess to a certain degree of melancholy at the turning of the year. Maybe that's why I didn't feel like going to a friend's party and didn't do much of anything special. I watched the timer scroll down in Times Square via the internet, quietly toasted the year; but I didn't go anywhere, didn't make a special dinner.

There is--I don't mean to be a grey spot amidst the gleaming, but I have to say it--there is, of course, a certain arbitrariness to the whole turning. It's actually something I find boggling, you see: I picture the Earth on it's ceaseless laps of the sun and I try to imagine, I don't know, picture a red line in space, maybe. A computer-generated grid line or a magical piece of tape stretched across the universe, and I wonder, "Why this point in space? Why not some other arbitrary line?" This is how my mind works, maybe how a human mind works.

The problem, maybe, is that we break time to pieces for our convenience. Calling a moment "11:59" or saying that the microwaved baked potato is done in eight minutes or that the second horse came in a tenth-of-a-second after the first or that the delay pedal the guitar is plugged into is on a one-millisecond loop--these are the only ways we can keep track of the everything. There is an old joke about Time existing so that everything doesn't happen at once, but it might be more accurate to say that we have defined and subdivided a sense of timing so that we aren't confused by the reality that everything does, in fact, occur as a jumble. One moment segues seamlessly and indiscreetly into the next. You could divide these moments in half anywhere--Xeno certainly tried to--and it would all be the same as far as the universe is concerned.

So I imagine this big blue thing we're on sliding from one second into the next, and of course that's not how it really happens at all, but my brain tries to slow it down into frames. Like something happening on film, is how my brain wants it to be. Twenty-four frames per second creating the illusion of constant motion, when in reality the motion is constant, there are no frames.

On a tangent, it strikes me that this is part of what makes the assassination of John Kennedy so damn murky: we have this one good piece of film (there are several, but as we all know, the one Abraham Zapruder made is the most complete), an amateur piece of film using a home camera that took discreet individual pictures of a terrible flowing moment in time at a rate of roughly one picture every 1/18th of a second. And we see this flickering parody of continuous time and try to understand this constant motion in time and space as a series of still frames creating an optical illusion and it's hard to get our minds around the reality that things continued to happen between the frames--this black line that arbitrarily severs one slice of time from another slice of time an eighteenth-of-a-second later is full of life and death and motion, of objects moving at hundreds of feet a second and whatever ephemera distinguishes alive from not alive fleeing the scene of the crime.

Even if I could go a hundred thousand miles out and point a camera at the Earth pirouetting 'round the sun, a magic camera taking a picture not every eighteenth, not every twenty-fourth, not even every hundredth of a second or a millionth--this camera would never capture the fictional moment when the Earth spins past the same place relative to the sun where it was three-hundred-sixty-five-and-a-quarter days previously, because there is no moment, only this constant spill of time.

And relative to the sun! Here be something else stuck in your navel to gaze upon! This magic, arbitrary line the Earth crosses isn't even in the same place it was, not really--the sun hurtles round the Milky Way at a vast speed and the Milky Way hurls itself across the universe and the universe is constantly getting bigger. There are things we can't understand, not concretely, because we'd be absolutely nutters if we did, babbling idiots drooling at the enormity of it all!

Looking back at last year's January 1st posting, it seems I said something similar. Oh well. Everything changes except the things that are constant.

Happy New Year.


Random Michelle K Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 10:11:00 AM EST  

Eric, it is arbitrary, which is why I celebrate New Years twice a year. January 1st, and I have a small celebration for Chinese New Year-since that celebration lasts two weeks and is tied to the phases of the moon, it's slightly less arbitrary.

And really, who can resist an excuse to gather friends and eat well?

Eric Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 10:57:00 AM EST  

That's true, Michelle, no excuse necessary!

Before I saw Janiece had a link, I simply saw her comment in the sidebar and wondered what the hell a tree lobster was. So I Google "tree lobster," and I discover that they're these really remarkable insects:

Which came first: the tree lobster or the island? You may not have been asking that odd question, but researchers have nonetheless answered it with a report indicating that one species of this flightless insect is apparently older than its native home, Lord Howe Island off the coast of Australia. The find suggests that the bug originally evolved on an older island, one now submerged under the Pacific Ocean.

What a curious metaphor! Am I older than my home? Feels that way, sometimes, but I think everybody sometimes gets that way.

Then I clicked on Janiece's link and found a cute cartoon containing a disturbing coincidence that I'd rather not discuss. Still, 'twas uncanny.

O'course, my brain sees "(something) lobster" and I begin singing the B-52s. Ah, the '80s--you had to be there.

Random Michelle K Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 12:12:00 PM EST  

I forgot to say Eric, I love your header, except for the fact that I can't see all the titles of your books. I recognize some books I have (Harry Potter, Chaos) but not all of them.

Keith Wilson Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 2:48:00 PM EST  

I'm suffering from time. My body is a half second out of phase with my head right now. I'm sure caused by new year libations. Tomorrow I will read that again and possibly follow it. Wait, another phase shift coming.... alright, I've caught up. Right now the time issue was getting to bed at 4:30 and getting up waaaaay too soon. Quite a philosophic post to ring in the new year.


Eric Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 5:07:00 PM EST  

Michelle: thank you, for (a) liking the January header and (b) giving me tomorrow's blog post.

Keith: you're probably jet-lagged from the leap second. It's okay--your body will eventually adjust to the shift, unless you're one of the less than one-half-of-one-percent of human beings who cannot acclimate to the one-second delay and spontaneously explode into a cloud of tachyons that travels back to the beginning of the universe at a speed greater than c. But the odds are you'll adjust.

At least, that's what I'd tell people if I was hung over. :-D

rbird Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 7:13:00 PM EST  

Happy New Year! Reading your entry made me immediately think of Roland Barthe's work. He was hugely influential to me in my grad school work, and if you are really wanting some intellectual masturbation, read his collection, Mythologies. Or read this:

There is even a section on his interest in photography that I think you will find particularly interesting. "Many of his monthly myth articles in the 50s had attempted to show how a photographic image could represent implied meanings and thus be used by bourgeois culture to infer ‘naturalistic truths’."

Keith Wilson Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 7:31:00 PM EST  

Thanks Eric, I thought it was the Scotch. Hey, now I know how to spell tachyons That should come in handy somewhere.

Random Michelle K Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 7:36:00 PM EST  

Eric, re. tanky boy, I think I now officially love you.

In a totally okay with my husband kind of way.

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