Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/03/2011

Winter Wiener Roast and some Non-Linear Musings about Time

As I write (5 AM, January 3, 2011) the temperature in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, is 11 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature is to climb to 28 degrees today and drop to 6 degrees tonight. Tomorrow’s high should be just above freezing at 33 degrees (from the Weather Channel online). This very moment. Today. Tonight. Tomorrow.

When I was in eighth grade at Scottsbluff Junior High School, my parents allowed me to choose exactly the kind of birthday party I wanted. This was a big deal to me because my birthdays usually got short shrift in the celebration department. January 3 is too soon after Christmas and New Year’s, and always too cold to have much fun (witness today).

My choice was a wiener roast outside in the vacant lot behind our house. It wasn’t really much of a wiener roast. Dad built a fire in his barbeque grill, and we (the half-dozen or so friends who braved the cold) huddled around roasting our wieners.

I chose the wierner roast because I had never had an outdoor birthday because the time was never right.

Somewhere I have pictures of the special event. They show a bunch of boys roasting hot dogs in the snow. I also have pictures taken at my second birthday. My parents had no flash camera so they took me outside on the front sidewalk for the photo shoot — black and white photos of a little kid bundled up in a snowsuit with matching ear-flap cap sitting in front of a child’s table with a two-candle cake (snow piled beside the sidewalk) and no one else in sight. Desolate.

My associations with birthdays are, for the most part, negative. I was jealous of my brother’s July fetes and my sister’s April galas. The passage of their times always seemed more joyful than the passage of my time.

My (perhaps) unorthodox ideas [see my posting from yesterday] about the passing of time are only peripherally associated with my cold winter’s birthdays. However, I began thinking (again) about the passing (or non-passing) of time the other day when I was contemplating my birthday today. My body, mind, and spirit seem to have changed since my last birthday (or since a thousand years ago or a thousand years from now). If the passing of time for me is a constant, measurable quantity, then there are at least three billion passings of time happening at the same “time”on the planet. All of them different (but constant and measurable?).

My body is maturing—the process accelerating as “time” moves on—but time is not changing. Time (as we conceive of it) is going along at the same rate while my body (and each of the three billion other bodies on planet Earth) goes faster and faster and faster into decline. While we were roasting those wieners in the back yard, our bodies were gearing up for the process of acceleration that would come (later?), but come to each of us as a different passage of time.

Exactly what we mean when we say things such as, “Time passes” is a puzzle. My long-time favorite statement about the “passing of time” is from St. Augustine.

What then is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled (1).

The measurement of time has always fascinated me. Citizens of developed countries, have no time watch the heavens every night (or the sunrise and sunset every day) to keep track/make sense of the movements of the heavens. Western civilization has tried many ways of keeping track of the passing of time. Strauss lists four methods we Western folk have used to keep track of time.

Initially time was “captured” through counting – the days, weeks, months and years [in] Numerical succession. . . . Then. . . simultaneity surfaced, such as employed in sundials where the relative positions of the sun, the dial and the shadows are explored. . . . Subsequently, [in uniformity] the constant movement of the pendulum “ticked” off time duration. Finally. . . atomic clocks, dependent upon the irreversibility of radio-active decay. . . In all four instances of time measurement the implicit presupposition remains that the future passes through the present into the past (2).

The idea of the progression of the methods of keeping track of time is fascinating because, at least in Strauss’ formulation, it ends where it begins, in a natural state—from observing the heavens to observing the “irreversibility” of radio-active decay. We have progressed from observation of natural phenomena that we cannot control—mankind did not create the sun, moon and stars—to observation of the decay of matter (specifically atomic matter) which we cannot control. Between the two we have struggled mightily to measure, record, and perhaps control time.

The question of the passage of time, and of our need to mark that passage (celebrating birthdays, for example), expands for me to a mind-numbing contemplation when I consider the duration of the universe, and of planet Earth particularly. Six billion years, is it? The old hymn says, “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away.” That, of course, in the context of a religion that promises “eternal” life.

I was introduced to the phenomenon of “time” (became part of the great human seeking after time) in a cold and wintry country. I was introduced into “time” in a community that believed (believes) time passes in a certain way, headed toward an ending that will gather up all the loose ends and go on for eternity.

It is, of course, absurdly obvious to say that all questions of time are unanswerable. Like all other questions of any importance.

I come back to my high school question from yesterday, “Where does it all end?” My thinking may be a case of arrested development. Or my thinking is evidence that time does not pass. Everything is just as it was/is when I was/am in high school. Or roasting wieners a couple of years before that or my university teaching last month.

On this “anniversary” (from the Latin meaning “to turn yearly”—the concept of time we share is that the days return yearly—but how is January 3 in this artificially divided progression of 365 days the same as it was in the last progression of 365 days) of my birth, I hope I ask these questions in the spirit in which Hannah Arendt proposes we should ask them.

Behind all the cognitive questions for which men find answers, there lurk the unanswerable ones that seem entirely idle and have always been denounced as such. It is more than likely that men, if they were ever to lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions, would lose. . . the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is formed (3).

Taking a cue from Arendt, I hope my birthday is a time to ask questions that can’t be answered in order to pose for myself the kinds of questions I can answer. And leave the unanswerable to, for example, the music I’m playing on any given day. Or that I am playing now as I was on the first day. The elipsis in the Arendt statement is for the words “not only the ability to produce those thought things we call works of art.” Civiliaztions, she says, are built on art and thinking. The music I knew on the day of my birth and will know on the day of my death, whether that has already happened or is waiting to happen in some linear “time” between the past then and the future then. How many years have I remaining? Perhaps the better question is, “What is a year?”

(1) St. Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine. A new translation with introduction by E.M. Blaiklock. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1983. Quoted inh D.F.M. Strauss, “Do We Really Comprehend Time?” South African Journal of Philosophy 29.2 (2010): 167-177. (2) Strauss 168.
(3) Arendt, Hannah. The life of the Mind. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1981. Vol 1. p. 62. Quoted int Goodheart, Eugene. “Religion as a Form of Hope.” Dissent 56.4 (2009): 92-96.


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