Our Days Are Numbered

Midweek since the time change, I’m still not sleeping properly, waking in the middle of the night and dozing until suddenly it’s later than I should be up, and I drag out of bed, logy and bleary-eyed. Yesterday was 3-14, a calendar quirk that’s labelled Pi Day on our Gregorian-driven pages, a day of no significance but a fun day for the mathematically-amused.
20170315 calendar

In movies, clocks show time passing, calendar pages falling, seasons changing with sped-up elapsed time. Why don’t we see other metaphors—for example, how often are rulers used or tape measures? We move through time and space, but we seem to take no notice of space. We are comfortable with granting the importance of spatial distances, but when it comes to time, we want to see it measured.  By instinct, we feel time all around us, whether we are forever noting the digital clock readout of our phones all day, feeling the seasons pass, or obsessing about our age, it’s as if time sits like a bird on our shoulder.

If we are saving daylight, when do we get to spend it?
Many of us grew up with Daylight Savings Time, so it’s hard to imagine that the practice is relatively recent and didn’t catch hold in the mid-1970s U.S. Energy Crisis. Even then, some places like Arizona still choose not to participate, and the starting dates have shifted around nationally, moving to a different day in the year just a decade ago. While the extra hour of daylight in the evening favor those who work inside all day, farmers and those who put on evening entertainment oppose the process. For example, dairy farmers know that the cows don’t want to be milked an hour earlier just because that’s what the clock says.

Like the cows, the one hour slip seems unusually hard on our bodies. The sun has already been shifting day by day to an earlier rising hour and our diurnal bodies often move to wake with the light. What if instead we just spring forward five minutes an hour for four weeks? Shifting the full hour creates headaches, disruptive sleep, irritability and poor productivity as we try to adjust.

As with all processes, opinions around the country have cropped up with alternatives. Some in New England, for example, are advocating that after the “spring forward,” we should just stay that way and never fall back, staying on Atlantic Standard Time. Similar discussions on the West Coast have cropped up with the same intent – get rid of the change in the fall. But while shifting to DST must have been hard in the first place, shifting to another standard could be just as hard.  Voices in the wilderness calling for change will probably not be heard. Think of how much more logically the metric system would be for us in every way, but whose lifetime do you suppose that will occur in? Probably when the aliens come.

We mark special days around the year to celebrate, often for religious reasons, but it’s hard to say if the religion invented the celebration or the need to celebrate invented the religious reason. Festivals are not only linked to changes in the natural seasons but also more ways to experience time passing. Cycles feel right to us. We wake and sleep to a natural rhythm. We celebrate the passing of the earth through the universe and the sun changing around us. Consider that most cultures celebration some version of a “new year,” even if it’s on a different day in the year; most cultures also celebrate birth days and many also laud a full moon or the longest day of the year. Even U.S. holidays have both cultural significance and a seasonal component – Spring/Easter, Summer/July 4th, Fall/Halloween & Thanksgiving, Winter/Christmas.

καὶ σύ, τέκνον
We also invest meaning on special days for historical reasons, and as artists create plays or painting over the span of centuries, the day becomes pregnant with additional significance. I sometimes can’t hear the year 1984 now without thinking of Orwellian times or the year 1999 without hearing Prince singing in my head. Today, of course, is also the Ides of March, a date with no particular meaning for most of us, yet pregnant with historical and literary significance.

What exactly is the Ides? The Romans structured their calendar around three key days each month. The first day was Kalends; the end of the first week was Nones; the end of the second week was the Ides. The end of the 3rd week did not have a designated day. In this system, when they referred to the day, it was in reference to a count before or after the most recent marker, such as 5 days before Nones or 12 days before the next Kalends. That measurement method seems as strange to me as a Roman would likely find a digital clock.

The Ides would be a footnote if it weren’t for the assassination of Julius Caesar which historians at the time confirmed as on the Ides of March in 44 BC. Plutarch also notes that a seer told Caesar to beware the Ides, and Shakespeare memorialized the line “Et tu, Brute?” during the fatal murder. Plutarch and Suetonius, both Roman historians, wrote that Caesar had no last line although others suggest he said, καὶ σύ, τέκνον – in Greek, not Latin – “Kai su, teknon?” “You too, child?” Call it fake news or literary embellishment, either way such rumors and exaggerations are centuries old, not new phenomena. In either case, we can’t think of March 15th without perhaps musing about the meaning of the Ides or briefly considering whether there’s anything we ought to beware of.

Sean Carroll and the Arrow of Time
Sean Carroll, professor of cosmology and physics at Cal Tech, created a series of lectures on the mystery of time, trying to explain what Time is and why it works in the universe and in our minds. We move through both space and time as dimensions. Time itself has no speed. The clock is not moving time, it is moving us. For Carroll, the key notion is the arrow of time – it moves in only one direction, unlike space which does not move in any specific direction. We can’t remember the Future, and we can’t change the Past, because of this arrow.

But time is not itself the arrow. The arrow seems to be inherent in stuff, in the atoms of space that create us and our world. If you break an egg, the egg spreads outward, increases in entropy. The egg doesn’t spontaneously spread inward to return to a closed shell; the arrow of entropy goes in one direction. However, entropy isn’t “caused” by time, but seems to be related to the way eggs work. We age because our cells have entropy in them. Time is neither measurement nor observer. We turn it into the bird on our shoulder because we can only experience it as moving forward.

The point of the movie Arrival, which I described in another blog, is a story about aliens who are independent of that arrow. Whether they experience entropy in their own bodies or not, they are able to see and move across time without feeling its restrictions the way that humans do in the way we experience the universe. We say move across, too, but we don’t understand enough about how time works to know if aliens would move through it or simply experience it all at once. We just know that, for now, we are restricted to a forward-facing arrow which doesn’t remember the future. Unless you’re Amy Adams.

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons
–T.S.Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Violetta Sings as the Clock Ticks

We hang on the arrow, and our clock hands move forward. Because we feel the passing in our bodies and we remind ourselves about the significance of days and hours, we create stories where passing time is the central theme. That loomed large in the opera production I saw on Saturday,  New York’s Met’s La Traviata , repeating in theaters today in some cities.  In the story, our courtesan soprano, Violetta, has a terminal disease and sings arias about indulging in pleasure, knowing that her days are short. There are also standard side stories of love, jealousy, revenge, and sacrifice, but her “numbered days” are the central theme.  In a very modern staging by German director Willy Decker, there is a giant clock mid-stage with little other props or furniture.  All of Violetta’s actions play out against this backdrop with the clock ticking in real time at first, then spinning faster.  Later, the clock face and hands — why do we give this measuring device human appendages? — are covered, have no hands, or have the hands removed to act as weapons. Ultimately, the face is pushed over and used as a gambling table. Time through this story becomes a character on its own whose interactions are a backdrop.

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When the opera is staged more traditionally, in opulent Paris salon rooms with elaborate dancing costumes, the singing about pleasure seems unpleasantly hedonistic, only explainable when the heroine abruptly coughs and turns pale, which seems melodramatic – disruptive. But when staged with the clock staring at her and us from the start of the Overture, the theme of looming death is inescapable. Even though other plot themes play out, much of the opera is Violetta musing on life’s shortness. It even seemed – especially in Act 3 – that she was singing on and on about her coming death until I almost felt hardhearted – go ahead and die already!  Until she does and the death is the cathartic release it was supposed to be.

Verdi’s lays it out: life and death are just two sides of the same bladed knife. We feel time passing; we can choose to obsess about it or not. At the outset, when Violetta sings of living only for pleasure, it seems irresponsible and hedonistic. But later when she keeps focusing only about how little time she has left, you start to wish she was just drinking and dancing instead, wouldn’t that have been a better use of her time….? Rather than spending all her remaining minutes thinking about how little of it she has? The story circles around and around her dwindling time, and the set with its circle and its focus on the clock moves in kind, orbiting around the theme like the earth around the sun.

Violetta can’t escape the arrow, and neither can we and our instincts know it.  The Ides of March as a date on a measurement device called a calendar is both significant and inconsequential; it was important to Caesar but not so important to me except that it is today and I am here, in a place where the sun rises higher each day as we move towards the summer. More daylight from Daylight Savings Time will mean a little more suffering in the short run and then more time to go out in the evening and do things. More time to walk after dinner or paint in the late afternoon sunlight, to barbecue, to sit in the twilight breeze, and to make the most of the light and the most of the moment, as we should always, for all time.

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