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.

Spacetime, part 1

Zombies: Time of the SeasonWHEN THE NOON SIREN went off on Tuesday, I was inspired to look at the ways in which we measure time, and I went on to write several pages on the subject. I’m taking another online writing course, Blueprint Your Book, led by Minal Hajratwala; and again, I am overwhelmed by how much I am learning already (and how far behind I already feel).

The first week was all about Time. You know I love writing about time. Week 2, which we’re just wrapping up, is about Place. I’d love to share some of what I’m learning with you, but rather than go back to last week’s lessons and risk playing catch-up for the duration, I’ll kill two birds with one stone and focus here on the connections I drew between time and place or space. There’s a lot to say, so I’ll split it into two posts.

Looking back at what I’d written Tuesday, I could see that the two dimensions are intertwined in many ways. It’s so interesting to me how much our measuring of time depends on space, the amount of distance traveled or space taken up (as with the sand in an hourglass, for example) being a measurement of the time that has passed.

All of our most basic markers of time—days, months, years—are based on the movement of our planet in relation to the sun and moon, and everything else derives from that: the ¼-year seasons; the smaller bits—hours, minutes, and seconds—all easily divisible (no prime numbers here); and the larger ones—decades, centuries, millennia—all multiples of 10. Only the week is somewhat arbitrary—why 7 days? (Our friends at Wikipedia have a lot to say about this. Who knew the Soviet Union dispensed with the 7-day week for a while last century?)

The space-time continuumMost of us have a hard time imagining the distance our planet travels through space in its orbit around the sun; we can more easily measure the angle of the sun as it traces its arc across the sky, how slowly or quickly it climbs and descends depending on our place on the planet and the time of year, how the moon looks different to us over the course of a month. One can say that Earth is not the center of the universe, but it really depends on your point of view.

(Which reminds me, once on Jeopardy! they asked whether the planets rotated around the sun in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. Think about it. Totally bogus question.)

So, time is distance covered. As the length of shadows approaches infinity, night falls. When my train arrives at the station, or I get off my bike, or I finish walking from one room to the other, I know that a certain amount of time has passed that corresponds to the distance (and speed) traveled. Distance ÷ Speed = Time. Speed × Time = Distance.

When we read a watch or a clock (the old kind, not the digital ones), we tell time by measuring the distance the hands have moved. I know it takes a cigarette 7 minutes to burn. You can use a cigarette as a clock. I recommend you use a stick of incense instead. Same principle.

Have you eOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAver stared at a clock for a long time? I have. We’ve all experienced time speeding up and slowing down. Like all things, time is a function of our mind. The hands on the clock speed up and slow down; hours and days go by for everyone at once, yes, but we all experience the time differently.

There is probably a lot I could say right now about the space-time continuum, but I won’t. It’s an absolutely fascinating topic that I, quite frankly, have a hard time wrapping my head around; but I encourage you to figure it out and report back to me.

The flow of time: We measure waterfalls by how much water flows over them per unit of time. We can know ahead of time when the flooding river will crest in much the same way we measure the time it takes for something, anything (a piece of wood or spilled radioactive waste or ourself in an inner tube or the water itself) to move a set distance down a river; for a message in a bottle or a dead body to wash up on the shore; for glass—which I was recently told is technically a liquid—to move in a windowpane.

Nature is full of examples of how time can be measured spatially. We can track it by the growth of grass (as one of my classmates said so poetically last week) and the height of crops, which will also tell us something about the season; by measuring the size of giant trees, or by cutting them down and counting the rings. We know how far away a storm is by the delay between, as Bob Seger would say, the time we felt the lightning and waited on the thunder.

Beatles: Eight Days a WeekThere are a million other examples of how distance or space measures time—I’d love to hear your favorites! I’ll continue this post in a couple of days with examples that turn to some of my own personal areas of special interest: the body, records, writing, maps, travel, dating, and love. See you there…or then…or…

Obsessive projects

Dave X Robb's last day at Square One restaurant, 1990I REUNITED THIS WEEK on Facebook with some of the people I used to work with at my last restaurant job in the late ’80s. It got me thinking about nostalgia and memories, how we change over time, and how we stay the same.

I was reminded that I used to run geography and 1970s music trivia contests out of the busser station on slow nights; so, you see, I really haven’t changed much at all. Thinking that I might still have the evidence of that era somewhere in my basement, I (obsessively, you might say) went looking for it.

And I found it: a file folder labeled “Obsessive Projects.” I kid you not. It contained not only the trivia sheets challenging my coworkers to name, for example, all the #1 songs of the 1970s from A to Z (a different letter each night) or songs named for cars, planets, days of the week, and so on, but also documentation of other fascinatingly obsessive projects, some of which I had forgotten about.

Crayola crayonsI had alphabetized the 64 Crayola crayons, apricot to yellow-orange (that was easy); measured and ranked San Francisco’s 100 longest streets; ranked the top singles artists of the 1970s using my very own point system (England Dan and John Ford Coley were #100, with 321 points); and meticulously tallied the population of every time zone in the world (the smallest being Pitcairn Island’s 57; those controversial survivors of the Bounty mutineers have since joined a more popular time zone). Keep in mind this was before the Internet.

There’s a lot more in that folder, but I think you get the idea. I look back fondly on the strange person with a typewriter I was back then, a little relieved that I am no longer quite so crazy, and wonder how I ever found the time. Or, more to the point, why I didn’t spend my time doing something else.

You know I wonder about time all the time: how to spend it well, how to not waste it, how to enjoy down time on the one hand and not succumb to the laziness of busyness on the other, while keeping mindful of what a precious, unique thing our human life is. (You never know when you’re going to get another one.) It’s a balancing act I’m still trying to work out, and having more free time these days has brought the question into sharper focus.

Obsessive Projects folderAnd so, I recognize the odd person who filled the obsessive projects folder half a lifetime ago. I like him, but I’m a little scared of him as well. As fun as it can be to look in wonder at the evidence of my obsessive projects, I don’t want to go back there, harboring a fear of the balance tipping too far in the direction of trivia. I don’t think it’ll happen. Life is far too precious, and I know it.

What have I been doing?

Dave X Robb wearing 2 watchesTHERE’S A CERTAIN IRONY to the fact that I have a lot more free time now and am blogging less. I’ve not posted as frequently of late, even though I’ve cut back my main job to 3 days a week. So, what have I been doing?

Well, I’ve actually been keeping pretty busy and making, I think, good use of my time–writing, even! Since I’ve last posted on here, I’ve kept up with the “morning pages” habit I cemented while doing The Artist’s Way, writing around 1000 words almost every day (though not necessarily in the morning). I went to a nice little poetry workshop followed by an open mic program I performed at. I went to a class on writing and selling erotica. I researched blog promotion, got some ideas, and found some good new blogs in the process. I worked on the novella.

And I’ve done a whole lot of other, non-writing-related cool things I seemed never to have enough time for, from spending more time at the gym to reading to lolling in bed all day with a sexy boy. I’ve so enjoyed having the extra day off! It has made a bigger impact on my life than I had expected. I now have more days off than normal work days, so as soon as I’ve worked a day, the next weekend is close enough to start thinking about. Wow.

I officially spend a little less than half of my total time sleeping and working now, for the first time this millennium. That’s right, the pie chart of my life is now 52% free time. Well, that’s not really true. I have to eat. I have to use the bathroom and shower and get dressed and get to work and back. And some of that “free” time is, as planned, spent doing freelance editing work and giving massages. But, still, you get the idea.

Dave X Robb's bikeI was so worried I would not use my new free time wisely–knowing how I can be–I rather obsessively logged all of my time for the first 2 weeks on the new schedule. I had been thinking of doing something like that since reading about it on Raptitude, a great blog with the tag line Getting better at being human written by a wise and slightly obsessive (in a good way I can relate to) young Canadian fellow named David.

Two weeks was a bit much. One week would have been plenty. But the insights I gleaned were so valuable! The best finding of the experiment was something I noticed almost right away: the simple act of logging my time made me stop and think about what to do next every time I finished doing something. Rather than just wander aimlessly through my day, I would consciously decide what to do with a purpose. That felt great!

That was a more valuable insight than knowing how much time I spend on every little thing I do…though the obsessive in me loved calculating that, too: 5 hours and 2 minutes riding my bike in a week (I only did the calculations for week #1), 56 and a half hours sleeping, 54 minutes to do 2 loads of laundry from start to finish (not counting the time I did other things while it was washing and drying).

Dave X Robb in the yardWhich brings me to multitasking, which we should all know by now is a load of crap. The only times multitasking works are when one of the tasks is completely mindless or involves waiting. So, I meditate while I wait for the pasta water to boil; write in my journal while my mud mask dries.

I try to do things while I brush my teeth, but always have to stop brushing when the other thing gets even the slightest bit complicated, like moving the clean silverware from the drying rack to the drawer. I guess toothbrushing is not quite entirely mindless for me. You’d think it would be by now, but it is not.

But all of this focus on using my time wisely doesn’t mean every minute has to be jam-packed and goal-oriented. Remembering the lesson of lazy-busyness, I actually think it would be a good exercise in mindfulness to learn to do nothing else while brushing my teeth. Check in with me on that in a few weeks, will you?

I heard the news today, oh boy

Prince: Purple RainTHIS IS A POST about those songs that use phrases you almost always associate with a different song. Like that purple rain song. Oh, you mean there’s another one? America famously sang about purple rain in “Ventura Highway” (1972) more than a decade before Prince even more famously capitalized on the phrase and all things purple with the song (covered by Tom Jones and David Gilmour below), album, and movie of the same name in 1984. (And Janet Jackson went on to sample the America song’s opening guitar riff for her groovy 2001 hit “Someone to Call My Lover,” but we’ll talk about sampling another day.)

Sometimes a phrase gets reused in a way that feels like homage — it’s a conscious reusing of someone else’s phrase, maybe altered slightly, as in the Beatles’ I read the news today, oh boy from “A Day in the Life,” which was recycled by David Bowie as I heard the news today, oh boy in 1975’s “Young Americans.”

There were a few of these instances of songs sharing unusual phrases in 1975 (the year being about more than just fandangos, apparently). ABBA recorded “Mamma Mia” that year only to compete with Queen’s famous mama mias in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (As luck would have it, the two songs were consecutive #1 hits on the British charts, according to our friends at Wikipedia.)

That one feels like a coincidence, as does Freddy Fender’s crooning We may never pass this way again in “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” (also 1975, the only year Freddy Fender was popular); that line was, of course, sung repeatedly by Seals and Crofts in their 1973 hit of the same name. “We May Never Pass This Way (Again)” always struck me as a very strange use of parenthesis in a song title.

Seals and Crofts: Diamond GirlThat was also the theme song to my junior prom. I never connected the two things until just now, but I went to my first real concert — seeing Peter, Paul & Mary as a child with with my dad doesn’t count — that same year: Seals and Crofts at the Providence Civic Center. It was 1976, and I went with with my prom date. I don’t think either of us was particularly obsessed with Seals and Crofts (really, was anyone?), and I don’t think I’d blame them for the relationship’s failure. There were plenty of other good reasons for that. No, it was just another of those crazy mid-1970s coincidences.

(As a side note, when I did a multiple-choice trivia contest about myself a few years back on Facebook, the question, What was my first concert?, was the only one not a single person got right.)

Where was I? Oh yes, those phrases you associate with one song but they show up in another. One is a lonely number in the Grass Roots’ “Two Divided by Love” (1971) was clearly inspired by Three Dog Night’s One is the loneliest number (1969). The two groups shared a record label and were a lot alike, so maybe they had worked out a deal.

“Da Doo Ron Ron” hit #1 in 2 different decades by 2 different artists, the Crystals (1963) and Shaun Cassidy (1977) — nothing so strange about that, since everyone was reviving something in those days. But, to get back to the theme of this post (which seems to keep slipping away from me), in another #1 hit, none other than Neil Sedaka, a recording artist famous for being popular during the time of both “Da Doo Ron Ron”s (or is the proper plural Da Doos Ron Ron?), but not for most of the time in-between, sings loads of da doo ron rons, or something very similar, along with Elton John in “Bad Blood” (also 1975).

Who would have thought back in 1963 we’d find those lyrics at the top of the charts again a generation later, much less twice again, much less in a brand new song by a recording artist we thought we’d heard the last from? (…and in the same old song by an aging teen idol’s half-brother who I swear sounds a lot like Boy George. Has there ever been a public sighting of Shaun Cassidy since Boy George came on the scene in 1982? Interesting. But I digress yet again.)

I’m sure there are many, many more instances of this phenomenon. I mean, not that exact phenomenon — I think it’s safe to say there are no other instances of what happened with “Da Doo Ron Ron” — but you know what I mean: unlikely phrases showing up in more than one song. What are your favorites? The more unlikely, the better!

Fandango ’75

ZZ Top: Fandango!I’M THE FIRST TO admit it, sometimes I make the oddest observations while listening to my records. As most of you probably know by now, I’ve been playing my big record collection in reverse chronological order for the last couple of years, and now I’m in 1975. I’m fond of pinpointing the cultural phenom of the year in song: Cocaine records were big in 1977. In 1976 it was all about CB. 1972 had its spacemen and adultery, and ’71 brought us hot pants hits. Well, 1975 has a theme as well, and you’re hearing it here first: fandango.

It began dawning on me the other day when I heard “fandango” in an obscure Janis Ian song, “When the Party’s Over,” which opens Between the Lines (1975). I thought to myself, “Didn’t I just play another record that said ‘fandango’?” It might have been “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975), or it might have been something else. I wasn’t about to replay all those 1975 records to see if I had missed a fandango song, but I nonetheless felt like I was on to something.

Then tonight I played Bob Dylan’s Desire (1975), and guess what they were dancing in Durango? To quote Jerri Blank at her cheerleader tryout, “Fandango?”

Jerri BlankNeal’s Fandango” appears on the Doobie Brothers’ Stampede (1975). It doesn’t say the word “fandango” in it, but still. And to top it all off, there’s the famous ZZ Top album Fandango! that came out the same year. I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting, but even if there aren’t, doesn’t 5 fandangos in one year of pop music seem like an awful lot?

I’ve been trying to figure out if there was something going on in the culture that caused this rash of fandangos, but haven’t come up with a clue. Any ideas? Was there a fandango scene in Jaws? Did Gabe Kaplan teach the Sweathogs about fandangos in Welcome Back, Kotter? You can find almost anything on the Internet these days, but sometimes what you’re looking for just isn’t there. This is one of those times.

My guess is that all these recording artists got together at some drunken party after the 1974 Grammys and decided to do this just for fun, to see if anybody would notice. Well, I noticed.

Doobie Brothers StampedeThere had been fandango mentions earlier, but very few and far-between, Procol Harum’s brilliant “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (1967) being the most famous. Interestingly enough, that song and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” were cited by the BBC as the 2 most-played songs in the UK over the past 75 years (as of 2009). The 2 songs were also jointly named Best British Pop Single 1952–1977 at the Brit Awards, according to Wikipedia. Both say “fandango.” Coincidence? I swear, sometimes this stuff is downright eerie.