Repent, The End Of Yet Another Year Is Nigh

It is June 30th, 2015; half the year is over. Depending on your age, you will react to this news with indifference or a curious mix of panic, terror, and melancholy. My reaction, as you might guess by my decision to write this post today, veers–sharply–toward the latter.

Forty might be the new thirty, or perhaps fifty is the new forty, but whatever the latest form of the pithy consolation handed out to those who sense the downward slope on life’s hill, there is no getting around, over, or under, the sense of the precipitous acceleration of the clocks as one ages. The theory of special relativity has something to say about this, I’m sure, obsessed as it is with observers, clocks, measurements, and sometime twins doomed to age at differential rates, but the central problem at hand can be described quite easily: the days feel too short, the bright light seems to be approaching a little too quickly. William James, in a characteristically melancholy mood–don’t let his sometimes sunny optimism and flowing turn of phrase fool you–noted that “the days and weeks smooth themselves out…and the years grow hollow and collapse.”

(As the James reference shows, many bright minds have concerned themselves with this puzzling business, and they haven’t stopped:

Friedman, W.J. and S.M.J. Janssen. 2010. Aging and the speed of time. Acta Psychologica 134: 130-141.

Janssen, S.M.J., M. Naka, and W.J. Friedman. 2013. Why does life appear to speed up as people get older? Time & Society 22(2): 274-290.

Wittmann, M. and S. Lehnhoff. 2005. Age effects in perception of time. Psychological Reports 97: 921-935.)

My particular morose take on the rapid passage of time is most acutely manifest in my worrying about about tasks completed or left unfinished and fretting over how to adequately allocate and manage time between my various personal, professional, intellectual, and existential responsibilities. The most depressing variant of this activity was my extremely imprecise calculation of the number of unread books I could see on my shelves, my Amazon wish list, and my ‘Downloads’ folder. As you might have guessed, my arithmetic confirmed my worst years: There are not enough years left for me to read them all.

My writing on this blog shows I’m a little obsessed by the speedy passage of time. Once–in a post written on July 1st, 2012–I made note of how travel slows down time, and on another occasion, on how a mere change of environment can have the same effect. These maneuvers are of limited efficacy: vacations do not last forever, and the unfamiliar, for an adult, all too rapidly becomes the familiar (that’s part of what it means to be an adult, the growing ease of the contextualization of life’s offerings.) I had hoped my daughter’s birth would slow clocks down, but as our family’s marking of two and half years of her life last week showed, that hasn’t helped either. Indeed, as many parents keep admonishing me, I’d better hurry up and take more photos and videos of these years, supposedly ‘the best ones of all.’

Time is running out; I’d better wrap up, and go do something.

The Second Half Begins

The ‘second half’ of the year has started. Even for one used to the accelerating pace of the days, weeks, months and years, this arrival of the ‘other side,’ this commencement of the downward slide toward December 31st, feels to have come a little too quickly, with an indecent haste, an improper briskness.

The ‘summer’–that period between the time I hand in my grades for the spring semester and the time I walk in to distribute syllabi for the first class of the fall–is already more than a month old, and I have little to show for it. A little writing–glorified note-making, really–some speculative syllabi design (ambitious reading lists wax and wane), a few afternoon naps, a backyard dinner–this summer’s list of achievements appears a little sparse. No long travels yet, no extended afternoons of beer-drinking, no beach days.

This anxiety about a wasted summer finds its grounding in the faux ‘busyness’ that consumes us all:

Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work….The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it….Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day….I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

This busyness, this public proclamation of consumption by our calendars, niggles at us every waking second of the day, turning our lives into on ongoing failure, a litany of unfinished tasks. We proclaim ourselves busy, all the while feeling we are not ‘productive’ enough. And sometimes even feeling that one hasn’t ‘consumed’ ‘leisure time’ ‘adequately.’

One way to slow down the clock is to un-structure the day; to remove routine and time-management, to let the day become formless. The hours and minutes, rather than being quickly poured into prefabricated containers, slowly congeal into shapes of their own choosing. We begin to notice again, that the day has distinct moods: the newness and brashness of the morning, the mature depth of the afternoon, the melancholy of the evening. Blithe ignorance of the weekly calendar does wonders too; Sundays and Wednesdays go back to being indistinguishable; Monday mornings stand accused no more; Thursday and Friday evenings and Saturday nights blend seamlessly together.

Better still, to travel, to leave home, to go elsewhere, to give oneself the best chance possible to re-experience the world anew.  And when you get there, stay on your feet.  The longest day of travels to a foreign land is always the first; if you want to experience a laggardly time-piece, a leisurely chronometer, take an overnight train–one that gets you to your destination early in the morning–to a never-visited town, and spend the day walking through its streets. Miraculously, the morning stretches out, the afternoons and evenings seem distant.

The surest sign a vacation is dying is the quickening of its pace.