Spacetime, part 2

"Sound and Vision" by David BowieSPEAKING OF TIME and space and how the two interact, I found plenty of good examples in the world around me—in the body, in reading and writing and editing, in records, in maps and freeways and outer space, on dates, and otherwise between people. How does psychic space work with time? If you’ve come a long way, have you covered a lot of space or time or both?

Anything that moves at a predictable, measurable pace can be a clock. I told you last week about the cigarette but forgot other clocks: the seismograph, the news ticker, snowfall, a parade. (In the town where I grew up, the Memorial Day parade would go up the main street to a little park, where they held a little ceremony, then march back down the same street to where it started. People would watch it twice, if they had the time.)

We measure time in the body by the growth of a zygote into a baby in a mother’s womb, size as a stand-in for how many months along she is; by the marks on a doorjamb as children grow taller, as they outgrow their clothes, their shoes lengthening; by the length of our hair and beard and fingernails and whether they need cutting; by the time it takes a cancer to grow and spread, the distance it travels in the body and the size of the tumor as markers of time passed and of time left.

So, height corresponds to time, but so does fashion: the length of skirts, the width of stripes, the height of platform shoes can all be mapped on a timeline. I’d love to see a formula to measure how much time has passed based on how much fashion has changed; but then, it always comes back. Perhaps there is a clue here as to how the space-time continuum works.

Some of us measure time by how long it takes to cover a page from top to bottom, left to right, with writing (or to edit a written page); or how long it takes our eyes to trace a path from the first to the last printed characters between the covers of a book. We can look at the thickness of a book to get a pretty good idea of how long that will take. (This doesn’t work with e-books.)

Dave X Robb and his sisters, 1970You know I like records. Part of what I like about them is their physicality. You can tell the length of a song in minutes and seconds, but also by the width of the band it occupies on a record, the distance the needle travels in a tight spiral of groove (we say “grooves,” but it is really one long groove) at a fixed speed of 33⅓ or 45 RPM. I used to also look through that little oblong window to notice how much physical space on a cassette a song would take up. I got pretty good at estimating how long a song I could fit when the tape was about to run out.

There is also a physicality to sound—something I could fill another whole blog post on—as the noises a record makes when played are encoded in the groove, the tightness of the spiral varying according to the nature of the sound, creating those pretty dark and lighter bands on a record; and thus, the amount or type of sound in a given song also affects the width of the band it occupies on the record. Sound and vision and time conspire on a record, much as they once did on the rolls of the old player pianos and jewelry boxes.

I also like maps. I once had an atlas that had not only a scale of miles, but also a scale of time showing how far you could fly in an hour. I like the idea that time equals distance. Tracing the movement of your airplane across the globe on the screen above your tray table shows you not just how many miles you’ve covered and your altitude, but also how much longer you can expect to be stuck in your seat.

Snowfall: the blizzard of '69In certain parts of the country—California being one—distance is measured in hours, not miles. San Jose is an hour away. It’s 5 hours to Tahoe, 7 to LA. Unless there’s traffic. I love those freeway signs that tell you how many minutes it is to Treasure Island or Berkeley. They’re usually right.

I do the same thing with walking. In my small part of the world, we have 2-minute blocks (counting only the main streets, not the little ones in-between). Figuring out it takes 10 minutes to walk from here to 24th Street is simple math (made simpler when the streets are numbered). Bike rides and hikes get measured in time and distance and climb, the vertical distance covered. Did I mention I always loved algebra and geometry?

And what of time zones? The distances around the globe expressed as hours apart, how long it’ll take for someone else to be in the same place in relation to the sun as you are now. Night is falling here; my friends in India and Australia are just beginning their day. The International Date Line is even more fun. Have you had the special experience of losing a whole day flying west or, better yet, landing before you took off when flying east?

One of my favorite units of measurement is the light year. I like it because it sounds like a unit of time, not of distance, making it a perfect example of how time and space are intertwined. And I like it because it is so vast. Some of those stars in our night sky no longer exist. I am 1.77 × 10-16 light years tall. Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” wins the prize for greatest distance ever mentioned in a song. It also does a great job of blending time and space: It’s taken him so long ’cause we’ve got so far to come. Distance equals time.

In another brilliant recording from the 1970s, a starving castaway in a lifeboat famously asks,“How long is it?” in a Monty Python skit. Length, we are reminded, applies to both time and…other things.

Stevie Wonder: Fulfillingness' First FinaleThinking back on dating situations, one can measure time (and I have) by how long it takes for a candle to burn down, by how far the wine level has gone down in the bottle, by how the distance you’re traveling in an elevator determines how many kisses you can steal before the door opens. (Please try not to read too much into the fact that all of these examples involve vertical distance. I could have listed the car wash example, but thought better of it…)

More than anything, I like looking at how time and space interact interpersonally. I am  interested in the distance created between people by time. We grow distant. We feel closeness. What happens when you don’t see someone for two years? How far apart are you when you reunite? Might the time apart make you closer? I like these abstract notions of place and space—psychic space, space in our hearts and minds and bodies, how we come together and move apart, literally and otherwise, over time.

I like looking at the time it takes to heal, to create the right amount of space and distance among people. I am intrigued by what it feels like and what kind of crazy things happen when the time and distance don’t match up, and what it feels like and what happens when they do. With an open heart, it’s always the right time to close up the space that keeps us apart.

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