Tuesday, January 29, 2013


In the opening scene of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, his character Chayce considers a friend’s theory of jet lag as she confronts her own, recently arrived in London from across the Atlantic. The theory is that the soul can’t keep up with a jet airplane and gets left behind, towed on a stretchy and ethereal connection that ensures a reunion, but not for a while.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the theory but I like the idea of it, and having just returned home after 16 hours of air travel from Buenos Aires it seems easier to consider. I’m sure Gibson’s intent was not to suggest it as a serious proposal, more as just the very kind of slick metaphor that the fictional Chayce’s friend would come up with. I think the idea doesn’t work quite as well for longitudinal travel, especially if the origin and destination have fairly similar time zones, as long as you get enough sleep during the “night” which I didn’t. Five hours difference is still plenty however, so I’m feeling pretty tired.

The odd part is that when I was in Buenos Aires, it was summertime. Every part of me that had adjusted itself to winter and to the long darkness was deeply and unnaturally confused. It was hard to inhabit a world in summer in a way that wasn’t tinged with an ongoing sense of wonder and disturbance; only in a tiny part of human existence has there ever been the possibility of changing seasons in a day. Now that I am home again, it is stranger to think “now it is winter” than it was before I left. Before I left, my life had made the slow and significant adaptation to winter; all my decisions for warm clothes and the cold outdoors, my sensations when waking in the dark mornings, my preferences for foods like winter greens and squashes, so many subtle adjustments that as they slowly manifest determine the obvious answer to the question “what season is it now?”

And here I am, thinking about my new friends and recent adventures in a place where it is still warm outside despite being five hours ahead at two in the morning; they cannot hear the cold rain on my skylights or the pop of the fire next to me as I write. Now, it is winter, but not in the same way as it was before. My answer to the question now is, “where?” which would ordinarily be a pompous and academic response, but it isn’t to me because two days ago I slept with only a sheet and tonight there will be deep covers.

It makes me wonder what would happen if we somehow brought a farmer from ages ago and took him to the other hemisphere. So much impossibility that we take for granted, yet even so causes a visceral disharmony when we really experience the actual sensation of having the world around us so dramatically altered. Seasons are supposed to mark time at a stately and almost imperceptible pace; our bodies are adapted to long cycles.

Now it is winter again, but it is summer too, in a faraway storybook land filled with strange trees and different languages and mysterious customs; now, I am not sure.

Monday, January 14, 2013


The word "now" is one of those words where we nod and understand when it is used in conversation but must struggle if pressed to provide a decent definition. We have a somewhat common belief that "now" is our experience of the present, that it is the temporal equivalent of the mathematical point, with no dimensions at all, an instant already lost. But is that really what we mean?

We're told to "live in the now" at least by certain cultures, to be sure not to neglect the present by dwelling instead on the past or the future. But beyond it being "not past" and "not future" it's a pretty elastic concept. My interest in the word comes from a constant flow of observations I've had, stimulated in great part by my academic background in the philosphy of mind and other topics that fall under the wide category of cognitive science.

My premise is this: our sensation of the present moment (which we call "now") is not in fact trapped in an infinitesimal moment that is forever gone, but rather is elastic -- that it can expand and contract depending on our circumstances. I admit that to some extent it ruins the intent of the word, but I am drawn to the idea that our consciousness can inhabit more than just a microsecond at a time, that it can occupy an entire second, two seconds, and arguably more, and less -- that we have a facility given to us that allows us to expand and contract in time that is peculiarly useful to us.

I'm not intending to prove anything (I can guarantee that there will be a later post on Wittgenstein on that subject). I am simply filled with ideas that, if they are collected, may allow me (and you) to learn more about our fragile existence as we sail through time.