Short Story: On the breeze with a cigarette

It was nearly the weekend. Dan and I stood in the usual spot, in an alleyway just down the road where the building was almost, but not entirely, out of sight. Between an industrial bin and a parking garage. Dan leaned against the wall smoking.

“Smell that. Doesn’t that remind you of last year?”

Dan didn’t even sniff the air. Instead he gave a short laugh and raised an eyebrow. “That’s just cigarettes and filth. And I didn’t even know you last year. What were you doing for a smell like that to bring you back there?” Dan nudged me with his elbow, then pulled his phone out of his suit pocket. “Eight minutes left. Better make the most of it.” We fell into silence, puffing on our second cigarettes, getting them in before the break ended.

I thought back to the end of last year, when I’d started this crazy experiment: I hadn’t worn a watch for three weeks, hoping that maybe this could help me get the better of time somehow. Delay it, or scare it off, or get it out of my head. It hadn’t really worked. How could it when smells and sounds moved time around so easily? I’d thought about time a lot. I don’t really feel like my life is rushing by, but I suspect that sometime soon it might. At least that’s what the movies say. The movies. Always messing things up. Nothing had ever really bothered me until I’d started watching the movies. I’d been content to fake my way through life, in a white shirt and a black suit. But the movies, they’re dreams turned to liquid and spewed onto the streets like gas.

Sometimes I thought I’d run away. Or maybe just live in a tree somewhere, one of those crazy big trees on St Kilda Road. I’d make a dash one morning at the exact moment my train would be leaving for work. I could go earlier, but I’d wait for the train… For poetic justice or whatever they called it. I’d sell my car and rent an old bomb, maybe even steal one, not too dilapidated, but one with that antique charm about it. One that would be difficult to find parts for if it broke down. Maybe with those draw-blinds on the back window. I’d drive across the country and write a book about my escapades. Half-drunk and with borrowed pens, of course. I’d keep the pages of it in an old shoebox under the empty passenger’s seat. I’d get deliberately lost until the car ran out of gas. This would happen in the desert, or up in the mountains, or in some little backwater town that had a bar and a jazz singer but no band. They’d packed up and left. And I’d leave soon too, when I’d figured something out with the car. I’d call my book On the Breeze or something like that. Because that’s how I’d feel, on the breeze, on the way. That’s how I liked to be. On the way where didn’t really matter. I’d be like this guy I saw in America, years ago, on the sidewalk outside a restaurant. This man that had been wearing this beautifully cut wine-red suit, with a white shirt and a black tie, and a cigarette in his hand. The suit had obviously been tailored just for him and the guy was as handsome as they come, with a carefully managed Beatles haircut that made him look like he’d just walked out of the movies. The goddam movies. He’d had this look on his face as he stood there, this melancholy as hell look as if something wasn’t up to scratch with the world and soon he was going to have to do something about it. How was that fair? To look that good and stare so sad? The bastard had even had a fountain pen sticking out of his pocket, as if he were a playwright or a novelist, and was deep in the middle of some big project.

Well it wasn’t fair, but that could be me, maybe in a less impressive suit and maybe not looking so melancholy. Maybe someone would walk past me and think to themselves, what a good-looking bastard, what’s he doing looking so bored? Surely he drives a Cadillac or something, to be so well-fitted in that suit?

On the way home from work I sat on the train between an elderly woman knitting and a young boy nodding off to the music in his headphones. I stared out of the window and studied the parked cars with envious eyes. How hard could it be to open one?

They did it with coat-hangers in the movies.

 

 

 

Cadillac_Ads-263CZ09Z
1963 Caddilac advertisement
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On the wisdom of the Avocado Tree.

Spring arrived recently, and as such I have been trying to grow an avocado tree.

After watching numerous videos on Youtube that suggest that the process is actually a relatively straightforward and simple one, I assembled my three pronged, alien-countenanced avocado pip on my windowsill. And then just in case it didn’t work I assembled four more, to better my chances that one will produce fruit.

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The idea is to suspend the avocado seed half-in and half-out of a cup of water using toothpicks to hold it in place. The seed is then supposed to split in half and grow roots from the bottom, and a stem from the top as can be seen here:

avocado

 

However, when yesterday passed the two month mark and still only one of my avocado seeds had split, I began to narrow my eyes at the jars on the windowsill.

Where is the stem?!

This pip is making a fool of me, I thought gloomily to myself. The instructions online had trees growing in less than two weeks! And I even named mine! I gave it a name and it won’t even grow! What kind of insolence is this?!

The avocado tree is a tricky creature. From what I have heard it can take anywhere between three to twelve years to produce fruit, and some apparently never do. It is also said that trying to grow an avocado from seed will produce fruit of a lesser quality than the parent, and when they do grow they are said to reach around 60 ft. Not really something that will fit in my backyard. So with all this in mind it seems foolish to attempt the challenge, and far wiser to leave it to the experts.

However, just as I was contemplating throwing out my stubborn plants and clearing the windowsill of jars I was seized by a suspicion. For a long time now I have entertained the theory that there is wisdom to be extracted from everything, even the most unassuming objects – and as such it occurred to me that perhaps this uncooperative tree was trying to teach me something.

avocado tree.jpg

In an interesting article about different cultural conceptions of time Richard Lewis highlights the differences between the general understanding of time in Eastern and Western cultures.

In a profit-oriented society, time is a precious, even scarce, commodity. It flows fast, like a mountain river in the spring, and if you want to benefit from its passing, you have to move fast with it. Americans are people of action; they cannot bear to be idle.

He also includes a diagram which illustrates his point: that time in the popular Western conception is something that moves quickly forward and that therefore must be consumed carefully:

american conception of time

Conversely, Lewis writes about ‘multi-active time’, and ascribes it to mostly Mediterranean cultures such as those of Italy and Spain. This view questions the linear understanding of time as something that shoots forward in a straightforward manner, as something that can be organised and plotted in a predictable fashion.

“I have to rush,” says the American, “my time is up.” The Spaniard or Arab, scornful of this submissive attitude to schedules, would only use this expression if death were imminent.

My favourite conception of time in Lewis’ article however, is the idea of cyclic time. Wise use of time in this conception involves making space in one’s timetable for reflection as well as action. Lewis ascribes this view of time to predominantly Buddhist cultures in which time is viewed as a cycle: of day following night, life following death, and rejuvenation following deterioration. He describes it as a ‘pool one could gradually walk around’ while one considers all the options within.

western linear and oriental

Similarly, in Issue 41 of The Idler, edited by the gentlemen from Q.I., there appears an article entitled ‘The Truth About Time’. In this article Brian Dean address the same idea as Lewis:

The view of time as a precious commodity seems to have roots in the Protestant beliefs which drove the Industrial Revolution. American business culture was the first to have workers compete against the clock to finish tasks in ever-shorter times. It was the birthplace of time-and-motion studies and Fordist assemble lines – an obsession with measuring production by stopwatch.

As Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars point out in their book The Seven Cultures of Capitalism, this obsession comes from the Puritan cultural heritage: “The Puritans were not, like those of other religious persuasions, awaiting the afterlife in quiet contemplation. They had God’s earthly kingdom to build and, given seventeenth and eighteenth-century life expectancies, a perilously short time in which to build it […] Time is the Puritan’s Great Disciplinarian and Cost Accountant.

Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars identified two predominant culture conceptions of time. they surveyed 15,000 managers from around the world and found that in the US, UK, Sweden and the Netherlands time is largely viewed sequentially, as a “race”, whereas in Japan, Germany and France, it’s viewed as a synchronised “dance”.

“Sequential time”, they argue, is seen as a threat, as it’s running out fast. The resulting anxieties lead to a preference for short-term profit-making, with paper entrepreneurs favouring creative accounting and tax avoidance over longer-term processes such as manufacturing.

“Synchronised time”, on the other hand, is seen as a friend. The past and future are but our memories and anticipation synchronised as ideas in the present – an eternal “dance” of possibilities recurring in the moment. Thus Japanese culture (which leans towards a synchronised view of time) tends to be the most long-term in its outlook.

(Brian Dean, 2008, ‘The Truth About Time’ in The Idler, issue 41, p. 32.)

Obviously both articles speak in extremely general terms, and of course there are good and bad things about both views. A disregard for the past as something that is simply over is never a good thing, but neither is it always wise to have too much faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, bringing  with it more time to complete everything we have left unfinished. Ideally we can incorporate elements of both into our day to day lives to avoid an imbalance in either direction.

And this, to return to my woefully slow-growing avocado tree, is precisely the wisdom that I suspect it is harbouring in its stemless seed. The jar on the windowsill reminds me almost mockingly that time is not something I can command. As much as we might like to order the days around, and as useful as graphs can be in arranging important tasks into manageable segments, it is important also to remember occasionally that that time cannot bullied by our timetables and wishes, and that action as well as reflection are important in any life if an imbalance towards either inaction or frenzy is to be avoided.

dead poets soc
Dead Poets Society: a graph is not always the best way to read poetry, nor the best way to approach our use of time.

After all, an understanding of time as something marketable and strictly controllable contributes to questionable phenomena such as advertising how many words one can type per minute on one’s resume, self-punishment when all the tasks on the to-do list remain unfinished at day’s end, and a mass of overworked and undervalued employees whose time has been quantified into somebody else’s schedule of productivity. An example that springs to mind is that of Foxconn’s Chengdu factory in China, where employees are allegedly made to sign ‘no suicide’ contracts stating that in the event of their suicide their families will not seek more than minimum damages or take any ‘drastic actions that would damage the company’s reputation or cause trouble that would hurt normal operations.‘ Environments and attitudes that quantify time into a controllable commodity can do an awful lot of damage.

grape assembly line
Fordist assembly lines become a terribly reductive way to approach human endeavours. They make get things done quickly but they take any joy that was to be had out of working.

factory assembly line

So. The avocado tree won’t be pushed. It will not grow according to mine or the weather’s or anyone else’s schedule. And in this there is something that can be learnt from it, especially if one is inclined to measure its productivity in narrow terms – if one defines it as valuable only for whether or not it makes fruit. On can spend years cultivating and caring for an avocado tree and it might grow to be 50ft high with magnificent purple leaves, and still it might never produce fruit. But does this have to mean that one’s efforts and the enjoyment came from the task were wasted? It doesn’t.

So if it grows I will keep it. If it lives for four years and then makes horrid fruit I should still like to keep it. Even if I labour away at it for ten years and never produces any fruit I will keep it. It will make a valuable reminder in the garden to reconsider my understanding of time every now and then, when I find myself in a hurry, with one too many assignments to finish, or a few too many errands to run. For although there may be no avocados, there is wisdom in the avocado tree.

It is Not Easy to Read Amongst the Tomatoes Anymore.

When I was younger my grandmother made me a little bag. Roughly the size and shape of half an A4 page, it has no zips, no cover, and nothing particularly remarkable about it. Every day I wore it to school beneath my blazer, for it was perfect for slipping books into, and this indeed had been its purpose. My grandmother sewed it for me when my blazer pocket became too small to hold the thickening books I was disappearing behind.

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Somehow, way back then, I read nearly a book every week. When I think about this now I feel a pang of dismayed envy and shake my fist at my younger self. A book a week! If only! I remember how, although only a humble little black pouch, the little bag was a comfort to me, for I knew that at any time I could slip away into that other world that it carried around for me in the pages of a paperback.

Now however, things are different. Out of necessity, one tells oneself, reading habits change. In the often frantic and distracted climate of modern society – with meetings and timetables, and deadlines and appointments – it can be daunting to sit down to do anything that requires even a short amount of stillness and silence. One has barely finished filling in the latest form before more paperwork and letters arrive at the doorstep. Pride in a finished assignment lasts only a few fleeting moments before one must turn to the next deadline. And on top of all of this the celery needs to be cooked, for it is malting in the fridge….Then you’d better go buy some more groceries for that was the only thing left. Finding an hour to read can seem like a foolish indulgence when there are more immediately pressing matters to think about.

busy street japan

ppl at sea

In one of their many brilliant endeavours, Alain De Botton and the School of Life have written a book entitled The Book of Life. In The Importance of Staring out the Window they capture nicely the point I am trying to make about reading;

The point of staring out of a window is, paradoxically, not to find out what is going on outside. It is, rather, an exercise in discovering the contents of our own minds. It’s easy to imagine we know what we think, what we feel and what’s going on in our heads. But we rarely do entirely. There’s a huge amount of what makes us who we are that circulates unexplored and unused. Its potential lies untapped. It is shy and doesn’t emerge under the pressure of direct questioning. If we do it right, staring out the window offers a way for us to listen out for the quieter suggestions and perspectives of our deeper selves.

Gustave Caillebotte, Young Man at His Window, 1875. Originally used in the Book of Life, click on image for link.
Gustave Caillebotte, Young Man at His Window, 1875. Originally used in the Book of Life, click on image for link.

In another blog post I wrote about the value of having somewhere private and silent, somewhere slightly removed from the world where one has the space to properly examine one’s thoughts. It is possible that I am merely repeating the same idea here, but it seems to me to be connected to the frequently heard lament that ‘nobody reads much anymore’. This is untrue, and overly simplified, but it is nonetheless undeniable that reading habits have changed. The paperback is a not a relic by any means, but articles such as this one – where commuters in Cluj-Napoca, Romania were rewarded with a free bus ride if they were reading a book – reveal an anxiety around the move away from paper and into the digital realm.

People are still reading, but arguably shorter articles, blog posts, and items online that flicker interestingly into focus and then threaten to be lost if not read quickly contain a certain appeal to those who are daunted by the comparative size of a book, or by a lack of time to settle comfortably and read. (I am aware of the irony here). Last year I remember one of my history professors mentioning that he doesn’t watch television because by the time he has finished reading all the interesting articles that pop up on Facebook, it will be at least midnight.

too many tabsThis, I suspect, is likely to do with at least three things: changing attention spans, the appeal of new technology, and the sheer amount of information available instantly at any given moment on the internet. Perhaps the appeal of the digital medium is partly in how it so accurately reflects the character of the modern world. The digital world moves quickly, and acts like a window out onto the rest of the world. If it is not watched carefully it may soon slide closed and become stuck. And then we would miss out on a lot of interesting and important things.

For me this is both the appeal and the thing that is unappealing about reading something of a more manageable length online rather than that old volume that has been accumulating dust on the mantle. But unlike online articles, books force one to slow down. There are no pop-up ads or multiple pages splitting one’s attention into far too many horcruxes to be able to appreciate one fully. And sometimes this can be great, when we can keep up with it. At other times, however, the pace of new information can become overwhelming.

I myself am extremely guilty of this trend. When so many things are happening around me it seems more practical, more prudent and time-wise to pick out the most important or interesting articles to read off my phone rather than pick up that four hundred page book about Mexico and disappear into the backyard with it. Short articles can seem more accessible when one has – or when one thinks one has – little time. I have arrived at the point now where I have amassed a secret cache of word documents and pieces of paper scattered on my desk, embarrassingly entitled things like ‘Links Saved From the Internet. Definitely Must Read!!’ More embarrassing still, my most frequent email contact has now become myself, with emails entitled such things as ‘DEFINITELY READ THIS ONE. INTERESTING LINK’ clogging up my mailbox. I have actually turned into one of those scam emailers that everybody learns to ignore.

Even well-established news sites however, are guilty of encouraging this fractured consciousness and broken attention-span. While perusing the news items of the day one is sometimes given an estimate about how long an article should take to read:

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What does this overwhelming amount of information, what do all the articles that we won’t ever have enough time to read, tell us? At least two things. That there is a lot happening out there, and how are we supposed to keep up if we’re switched off, somewhere removed and disconnected? In the words of the School of Life, there is no glamour or high status to activities like staring vacantly at the plants – activities which, for centuries have been ‘condemned and denigrated by moralists, teachers, employers, parents – and our own guilty consciences.’ That is how you miss out on stuff, Frodo Baggins.

frodo reading 2

It would be madness to admit that occasionally, on the way back from a busy day at work when we find ourselves passing a hardware store, we will wander inside and, eyes cast down towards the floor, we will rush past the pluming section and straight over to the nursery, where we will stroll amongst the quiet ferns and citrus trees and secretly imagine running away to the mountains, or perhaps an orange farm somewhere. It would be folly to propose that once there, we will pass our days in blissful contentment, free of the overcrowded news feed, and the savage voice of our own consciences telling us there is something more productive we could be doing.

plants

Apple Orchard

It is needless to share any of this because the foolishness and naivety of this plan will soon dawn on us, as we hurry back past the drills and chainsaws, past the nail guns and rakes, and the gadgetry of the well-adjusted modern house. It is folly to dream of such unrealistic peace, we tell ourselves as we hurry towards the tills, with our single tomato plant clutched dearly in our hands. No one need know that this modest tomato plant will be the first in a magnificent garden we will create upon our balcony or in our backyard, into which we will be able to escape quietly every now and then. Because the mops and buckets in aisle two are reprimanding us as we stand in the queue waiting to pay: don’t you remember that the drain needs fixing?

Perhaps I am just being old fashioned, but for me, reading a paper book rather than something online is practise in a certain kind of focus that I would like to regain. Whatever the appeal of the shorter article the sheer amount and visibility of them all at once can be an off-putting exercise in frustration rather than a useful experience. By removing oneself from the swelling ocean of online material and in focusing on only one book in front of you, one sharpens that ability to focus which is so often shattered into a hundred pieces during even the briefest venture on the smart phone.

I do not mean to say that reading paper books is unquestionably better than reading online – I enjoy both and see immense value in both. After all, the Japanese in their wisdom invented a word that is sadly lacking a counterpart in the English language and that contradicts this. ‘Tsundoku’ refers to the act of buying books and not reading them, and allowing them to accumulate. This to my regret, has become the permanent state of my bedroom, like that of my email.

Click on image for source article.
Click on image for source article.

It however, needn’t be only a frustrating thing. Collecting books – or collecting ideas, dreams, plans that one intends to refer to one day – is aspirational at the very least. Perhaps if nothing more can be said, there is at least that. Books and interesting articles pile up not only because there is often little time to read, but because the excitement at the idea of reading them, of learning something new, outruns our ability keep up with the enormous amount of information out there. I am suggesting rather, that when one feels ones’ focus beginning to split, when there are too many things online that you wish to read but can’t – that it is then perhaps time to pick up a book, focus on one thing only and hold that one thing in your hands. Flip through the pages and make sure nothing is going to pop up and distract you. Then you can disappear for a while, and come back with a new focus.

Ideally, this should be done in a shady glade, or if one lives close to the city and has limited space, among the leaves of the tomato patch.

Image by Quint Buchholz.
Image by Quint Buchholz.

tomato patch

On the Train Towards Tralfamadore

So, for something different….This piece was written as a dialogue between Djuna Barnes’ character ‘Dr.’ Matthew O’Connor, and Kurt Vonneguts’ character, Billy Pilgrim. Both Nightwood and Slaugherhouse-Five take place in the historical context of World War II. However, as Vonnegut wrote his novel in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, interesting parallels can be drawn between the two periods and characters. Billy Pilgrim approaches the doctor with hopes that he can suggest an antidote to the symptoms of PTSD.

Please find footnotes at the bottom, which I hope offer some clarification about what I was aiming for when I wrote the piece, as well as information about how this piece ties into the themes of the two novels (although it was intended that the piece would make sense even without prior knowledge of the texts).

This piece was also published here, where you can read other stories from some classmates in the American Literature subject for which this piece was written.

Billy sat quietly in the doctor’s office; which really was not an office at all, but an abandoned train carriage that the doctor claimed had been a gift from ‘Europe’.

‘You know, when it stopped moving forward,’ he had said of it.

Staring out of the window behind the doctor, Billy considered the space that the train now occupied. A field stretched before them, peppered here and there with tiny flowers that grew in isolated little clumps; but they were feeble, and easy to overlook.

Beyond the field stretched a road, with a stream of cars disappearing into the distance. They moved slowly in a long line. Strapped to the roof of a small red car was a giant missile, pointing rudely at the heavens. The men inside the car – dressed in formal suits and ties – were dancing in their seats as though loud music were playing. When the missile was launched everybody would be able to hear it and could join them in their dancing. But from this distance it looked ridiculous.

‘So you have come to me for guidance?’ asked the doctor, staring at Billy.

As he spoke his eyes moved from his patient to a small, framed mirror upon his desk. He finished the question while considering the mirror, staring quizzically at it as though it had tricked him somehow[1]. Shifting his gaze back to Billy he demanded abruptly,

‘Why would you think that I have it?’

Billy thought silently for a moment, wondering how to put it into words.

‘Because of a feeling really. I have become unstuck again, unstuck in time[2]. Only this time I can’t tell if I’ve moved forwards or backwards. I thought you might know?’

He finished simply, waiting for an answer. The doctor considered Billy silently for a moment; a grown man sitting still in his chair like an uncomfortable child, unsure where to rest his hands. Then the doctor stood abruptly, and spun to face the window, his arms flying out emphatically.

‘My dear fool, the world is unstuck! We’re all unstuck! Look at that traffic jam out there, everyone in it is stuck! Especially that fool with the missile.’

Billy, still seated at the doctor’s desk, looked to where the doctor was pointing. A group of young people had surrounded the red car, and they too had started dancing. But they were dressed in flowers and held signs and danced more angrily than the men in the car had. The men in the car had stopped dancing and now watched through the windows, annoyed expressions marking their faces. They poked their tongues out at the protestors, and talked animatedly amongst themselves. The doctor shook his fist at the line of traffic in the distance, and rounded once more to face Billy, a frustrated expression lining his face.

‘Perhaps what you are suffering from is not really the trauma of the war, but the trauma of the world. It is just that you have been unfortunate enough to have seen it.’

The doctor studied Billy silently for a moment, before turning back to the mirror and nodding emphatically at himself.

Billy had no words with which to respond; he sat silently, staring at what looked like a dress draped over the back of a chair in the corner, just behind the doctor. From where Billy sat, it looked almost like the parachutes he had seen in the war. Although then it had been useless to have a parachute, since even when he had flown away from the war he had ended up here, where another one was taking place. But he thought it would look nice on the doctor, with his elegant gestures and curly hair, and wondered privately to himself why more men didn’t wear dresses. On Tralfamadore the aliens had not.

‘I must say that I like it here,’ the doctor said all of a sudden, in a much more amiable tone. ‘The aliens are out in droves, not hiding underground as they used to.’

‘Aliens?’ repeated Billy hopefully, moving forwards on his seat, a little closer to the doctor.

The doctor fixed him with a piercing stare, as though he knew exactly what Billy was thinking.

‘Aliens aren’t just a symptom of space travel Billy,’ he said mysteriously, ‘just look out there, there are multitudes of them. Only they won’t admit it.’

The doctor gestured once more towards the scene beyond the window behind him[3]. Billy again had nothing to say, so instead he asked meekly,

‘What would you recommend doctor? What is your diagnosis?’

After a moment of thought the doctor scoffed into his jacket, a sardonic smile upon his face.

‘A diagnosis? Why what useless things they prove to be! What should I say of you Billy, which I should not say of the world? What can be found in you that cannot be found in the Grand Canyon?![4]  Or in the bottom of my shoe for that matter?!’

Billy did not know, so he tilted his head and waited, sure that the doctor was going to tell him. The doctor remained silent for a while, his eyes glazing over as he stared into the mirror. Then he spoke briskly, turning the mirror over and laying it flat on his desk.

‘Take a walk Mr Pilgrim. Walk to the busiest intersection you can find, stand at the side of it to watch, and flip a coin as you do so. Look around you and see what fortunes chance bestows upon you and everyone else. And see if anyone objects as you throw your coin into the air. Or better yet, take a nap on a railroad, with a blanket and a pillow – perhaps even bring a pair of slippers – and see when you wake up! That is my advice, if you insist on having some.’

The doctor finished with a frustrated flourish in the direction of the window and the world beyond it. But Billy Pilgrim had stopped listening. He was travelling through time again, towards a blinding red flash, and the sound of Kilgore Trout, singing what sounded like it might be the Tralfamadorian national anthem.

Pamela Silvan, La Trobe University.

Footnotes 

[1] In Djuna Barne’s novel, Dr Matthew O’Connor is notoriously self-possessed, and very entertaining in his philosophical ramblings. Often, however, they are full of contradictions which he nonetheless always manages to make sense of.

[2] In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim uses the phrase ‘unstuck in time’ to describe his experience of what is generally agreed to be a form of post-traumatic stress disorder – or shellshock. His experiences of time-travelling to an alien planet – Tralfamadore – are usually interpreted as symptomatic of his PTSD after having witnessed the bombing of Dresden in 1945. Thus his retreat into Tralfamadore can be understood as a coping mechanism.

[3] At this point it might be interesting to consider The Human Condition by Rene Magritte, 1933, [oil on canvas], National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. This painting is a useful comparison to the works of Barnes and Vonnegut in how it draws attention to the ways in which our perception of reality is necessarily constructed and influenced by social forces, values, and mores. The painting seems to question the idea of an objective reality, and draws our attention to the ways in which we are limited to our own perspective of the world, in the same way that Billy Pilgrim is held captive by his flashbacks and visions of Tralfamadore.

[4] See discussion between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, in which she comforts his frustration with the consolation that whatever problems exist in him, also exist in the wider world around him. A crack in him is a crack in the Grand Canyon – a miracle of nature – so he needn’t carry the weight of it alone. This discussion can be found in the essay ‘The Crack-Up.’

References

Barnes, D 1936, Nightwood, Faber and Faber Ltd., London.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott 1936 (2008) ‘The Crack-Up’, Esquire, 26th February, viewed 5 April 2014, <http://www.esquire.com/features/the-crack-up&gt;.

Vonnegut, Kurt 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five (The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death), Vintage-Random House Publishing, London.

Time is a frustrating thing

Obviously I’m not the first person to note this, but I hear myself say it all the time: Time is an incredibly frustrating thing.

This year, due to a series of enrollment errors and other relatively boring administrative stuff, I found myself confronting a gap in my uni course: I had to take a year off, because the end date of my last course overlapped with the start date of the course I was to do this year. ‘That’s ok’ I said to myself, the optimistic side of my brain piping up. I saw an open horizon, a chance to do so much that I’d put on the backburner. ‘You can learn a language! Read all those books that are sitting sad and neglected around your room! Get another job and save up for something epic!

And so I went with it, welcoming the new year and the chance to catch up on all those projects that had been shoved to the side when my uni routine had become too demanding. I started a language, practicing letters at work on little bits of receipt paper when no one was around. I got two more jobs and cleaned my room like I’d been meaning to all that time ago….

But it’s already the end of April’, a sad little voice keeps saying to me. I wish it would shut up. My sister (who is very wise) tells me often, ‘it’s never too late!’ and ‘Einstein’s career didn’t take off until his forties’ and other such spirit-mustering stuff. And I agree with her – time can be something we can get obsessive about when we become too aware of it as yet another force to which our lives are glued (like Fortune and Chaos). But then again…seeing time as a restriction is perhaps not the best aproach.
In a search for some sort of consolation or something…I went on the google and found these images, which got me thinking:

time-eye *1

This one jumped out at me first. I think it’s what I’d been trying to say when I’d attempted to reason with that nagging little voice: I’m not saying time isn’t out there in the world – things age, decay, die, and we see that everyday. But the frustrating concept of time is perhaps something that exists most in the human conception of it. We feel it chasing us because we keep it so firmly within our sight. Yes, that cliché of not being able to just ‘live in the moment’. John Green mentions this in a vlog here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUnQ-wOPGUE) where he talks about sociologist Peter Berger. Berger wrote that unlike humans – who sometimes don’t know how to fit into their own skin – ‘dogs know how to be dogs’….(Check it out, he’s a great vlogger…also note…I bring him up all the time in real life so expect to see the names JOHN and HANK GREEN plastered over this page from time to time.)

The next one that jumped out at me was this one:

The Weight of Time by Julie De Waroquier

the weight of time by julie de waroquier *2

This one I love especially because it reminds me of Albert Camus and Sisyphus; time can be a heavy burden that we’re constantly aware of, and when we obsess over it, it can feel like we’re carrying a terrible weight around. But maybe she should just run out that door. Leave that giant clock to roll around in the room alone.

And then lastly I found this one – which is probably my favourite:

Time-Killing ‘Chrono Shredder’ by Susanna Hetrich

chrono shredder by susanna hetrich *3

In this one I found the consolation I was looking for when I started typing into the google (*4). It’s like a modern-day ‘memento mori’, to remind us that what we can’t escape the fact that what we have is temporary. And that maybe this isn’t a bad thing. Perfection and eternity needn’t be connected. British journalist Bryan Appleyard points this out in his book ‘How to Live Forever or Die Trying’ in which he writes about the social implications of cryonics and life-extension technology. I read it once and never forgot it.

So anyway…I’m not really sure how this post turned from a post about the frustrations built into the human understanding of time into a memento mori…But it seems memento mori was exactly the point I was trying to make. Impermanence, things ending, time ticking away needn’t be something to mourn over. It can remind us to think carefully about how we use what time we have.

References, footnotes, video recommendations;

1) So I found this image here: http://merapoetics.com/2013/04/16/time-willows-away/#comments but unfortunately this blogger was also unable to trace the original source. If this is yours please let me know, it’s beautiful, and I want to reference it properly. …Anticipated title of next entry ‘Internet referencing is a Frustrating Thing’…jokes…No but seriously it is. John Green knows it too: Watch ‘Places I’ve Never Been’ here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVN9nenCGwM

2) The Weight of Time by Julie De Waroquier. Found it here: http://www.artlimited.net/image/en/330827

3) Chrono-Shredder by Susannah Hetrich. Found it here: http://dornob.com/time-killing-chrono-shredder-is-a-day-dicing-wall-calender/ The article accompanying it is worth a read…if you have the time ;P

4) Is it just me or is my friend the google becoming some kind of modern stand in for a guru or a make-do oracle of some kind? Something like a digitalised source of guidance, like a hologram-Jesus or a pocket Ghandi??….according to Alain De Botton the 12th most common question typed into the google is ‘what shall I do with my life’ (Watch ‘The Dangers of the Internet’ here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uquRzrcwA18)…what do you think of this?! What are the social implications for such a phenomenon?