My Pretty Pony, by Stephen King, is my favorite story about the passage of time. It’s from his 1989 short story collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes, which is packed with brilliance, and if you haven’t read it you should do so immediately. Much like Weird Al Yankovic when he graces us with a top 40 polka medley, King shines in a brief, snappy format.
There are enough books about the science and philosophy of memory so I’ll not attempt to reinvent the wheel with my layperson’s shenanigans. It’s a muddy, murky thing from my perspective. I do know memory is not something to be trusted without verification, and even that can get skewed when folks put their heads together.
The older I get, the more it seems like now is something I can’t quite get my hands on. It’s nebulous. It runs through my fingers, and while I can consciously say, “It’s now,” it isn’t. It feels like I’m reading a status report about something that just happened. If I don’t concentrate and pay attention, I hurtle forward until my brain hits something with resistance and registers another bounce.
It’s difficult to break out of dualistic language when I describe this. I say, “my brain,” as if that isn’t what’s tapping words into this fine piece of Vietnamese manufacturing. Sorry Descartes, but I don’t think there’s a little man inside my head driving Beef Robot Bob around. That would present the issue of infinitely recursive homunculi, and I might as well nip it in the bud right here and now (Dennett, 1973, 1978, 1986, 1994, 2003, 2014, 2017). I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam (Popeye, 1928).
(Did you know Popeye once accidentally punched a horse to death? He’d planned to just apply some brutal motivation to its face, but they were in the middle of the desert and the poor beast was already about to swoon from heat exhaustion. It hit the ground with Xs for eyes. We’ll, blow me down, indeed.)
I won’t give you any more homework, so believe me when I say I’ve read studies where researchers have carefully exposed people to stimuli, such as a moving light, and produced results that look like precognition. We’re not wizards, Harry. We’re just not registering everything as soon as it happens. There’s a small buffer, but there’s not a part of our brain where the buffering happens. Our brain is the buffer. Maybe we’re always chasing now. Maybe this is a status report about a status report. Maybe I’m a status report.
I’ve written before about the levels of realization we attain as we age. Like when, for example, we realize we’re not going to live forever. If you haven’t read that, I wish you would, but you need to queue up “Dreamer” by Supertramp and crank it when you hit the dead link. They, or their lawyers, persist in reporting Digital Millennium Copyright Act violations to YouTube and it’s really cramping my style. The only remaining accessible version on there is a shitty half-time live rendition, and let me tell you, folks, live music is best experienced live. Supertramp wasn’t present in person when my memories were initially encoded on this rotten old brain. It was the clean, studio sound that studded those thoughts, and I own it on vinyl, on CD, and in my heart. Submit a DMCA request on that shit, I dare you.
There was a time in my adolescence, before puberty kicked into full gear, when things started to make sense. A previously unknown clarity, a realness had arrived. There’s a reason why eunuchs have historically been political powerhouses. I felt like I had a handle on what was actually happening around me before a flood of testosterone wrecked it.
I recall, quite vividly, standing around and talking with my friends for hours about life, about where we’d be in twenty years. I remember saying, “I’m sure none of us will ever speak. I probably won’t even know you.” This wasn’t a controversial statement at the time. Heads nodded in agreement. As it turns out, I was correct.
They say your frontal lobe isn’t done developing until you’re 25. They peg peak reaction time around 18. Peak health is somewhere around eleven years of age. We’re certainly people before that, but perhaps the land between childhood and adulthood is where we first become actual. Formidable. Then, of course, we transform into teenagers and berserker rage our way through life until we emerge a beautiful butterfly, or moth, or some other such horrid thing that only understands pain and THE LIGHT! MUST FLAP TOWARDS THE LIGHT!
Back in the late 1990s I was a longhaired college freshman. Mom had gotten me a job working for Residence Life on campus, and I was lucky enough to be on the crew who removed hundreds of rotten, bodily-fluid-stained foam rubber mattresses from the dorms. We took them down the elevators and threw them down the stairwells all day every day until we were covered in yellow plastic dust and decay. We filled the courtyard with them, piled high like plague corpses, until the dump truck came to take them to the landfill. Even through our flimsy cotton masks, everything smelled like hot piss.
I’d engaged in my usual level of teenage griping until one of my coworkers had had enough. He was an Air Force Gulf War (the first one, kids) veteran, which was 25 years ago, but my god at the time it had only been seven. He’d worked in the back of a cargo plane, and sometimes he’d tell me about flying over the Highway to Hell. You’ve probably seen the photos where the retreating Iraqis got bombed, murdered, and absolutely fucked, fried and fricasseed in their vehicles. He said you could smell them from the air.
I’d whined about our work conditions enough that day, I guess, and he told me to stop thinking. “Turn it off,” he said. “Don’t you know how? Get in the zone.”
So I did. I became one with the mattress. I engaged in zen furniture removal. At the end of one particularly hard day, I stopped and told him, “Wow, that just flew by.”
“See,” he said. “I told you.”
Most things seem to fly now, which comes with age, but it’s everything except what I’d like to fly. The times I’m away from my family seem longest, and while it might only be hours for Gina and Willie, or days with the girls, it’s still too much. An afternoon with the girls feels like minutes. A Christmas with the family, a mere split second. Work might as well be a time lock.
I can’t help but appreciate the view of another Airman, Dunbar from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, who cultivated boredom in order to make life seem longer. If one were bored enough, it might seem like they’ve lived forever. It leaves you with a hell of a decision, though. It’s a thousand years of mattresses, or blink and wake up filthy just in time to die.
There’s probably a happy medium there, some mindful Power of Now bullshit where I press fast forward through the drudgery and hit slo-mo on the joy, but biology demands the opposite. It’s been my nature so far to sleepwalk through fun and savor the pain. Even when I’m self-aware enough to put down my phone and have a good time, my internal news ticker still scrolls, “This is fleeting.”
I met Tom Baker once. He didn’t say much. Gina and I sat with him for a photo and we were probably in the room for less than two minutes. I shook his soft, old man’s hand and said, “We adore you,” because I’d read an interview once where he said, “People often say very nice things to me on the street, which still pleases me a lot. Because when I first became an actor, I wanted to be popular, and then I wanted to be loved, and as the figures went up and up and up I have to admit I wanted to be adored. And they did adore me for a while.”
He also once said, “I adore distilled whippet shit,” so he could have thought I was referring to that. In any case, he seemed a bit surprised to see Americans in Slough, and I wonder if it felt as whirlwindy to him as it does to me. It’s been ages since he was the Doctor. A lifetime, in fact.
When I look up and out at the weird little timeline that always floats ethereally behind my eyes, I mark my beginning, with history stretching out before it. There’s a big line at BC/AD (sorry, atheists, it just sounds better), and back up to where I’ve lived I see the end of the 1970s, the decades, a big mark for the century, and the individual years, of course. I know where I was when I was twelve and full of certainty. The year I graduated high school, 1997, is burned in solid. The Oughties are punctuated by 9/11, war, Bush, and Obama. The Teens, good lord, they’re almost over.
It’s fuzzy out here at the end of time. I see 2030, when Cora graduates high school. It’s an impossible future date, like the title of a science fiction film, but it hurtles toward me. It’s almost here. It’s tomorrow. It’s gone.
I’ve spent too long in this rectangle today. I still have tasks to perform before I’m freed from obligation, and then I’ll return home and take note of what I love, while I can.
It’s not now. It never is. This keystroke is a recent memory. Here’s what was. I adored it, mattresses and all.