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Naming Time

September 22, 2013

I could never live in the tropics. Besides sweating when it’s 62 degrees, I could not abide season-free weather. Measuring time with seasons makes natural sense to my northern latitude genome.

But the autumnal equinox looks both ways – not cold, not hot – not the brilliant death of leaves, not in flower – time briefly stuck in the middle.

Our phones, computers and IPads now grind the exact time precisely into every thing we do on them, but its seasons and events that turn dates and hours into human reality, not the digital annotations that are seemingly layered upon everything we do.

One son has his birthday on every fall’s first day. This particular autumnal advent sees him free of undergraduate education and thus, to me, he has become a man. Of course he was legally measured a man 6 years prior at 18, and that measure was double-downed to “adult” at 21 – but circumstances are more the measure of time than numbers.

Tomorrow it is autumn because there will be more seconds, then minutes, then hours in darkness than in light, but it is not autumn, for me, until the temperature/time switch flicks and the 5 acres of Spartina grasses in our salt marsh go tan from brightly glowing green. And that salt water infused calendar and its 2 increments (alive and dead) has a second unrelenting passage- a tidal flow and ebb that pays no attention to the hour, day, month or year. Rise, fall, sun up, sun down, cold, hot, Republican administration or Democratic.

Not surprisingly, humans tend to bridle at this out of sync set of realities we must deal with. And as is often the case, when reality is not what makes us comfortable, we create another way of defining that reality that can gloss away inevitable futility with subjective interpretation.

I care nothing about what age I look, but a grinding sense that each calendar year gone has no make up mulligan to pad out my compromised performance makes every year gone a little more desperate. But others I know color hair, slice or paralyze skin, or hit the gym to make their visual presence comport with how they feel. Time spent denying spent time…

The problem with empirical measures of time is that there are many, and thus none. Christmas is on a numerical day that had nothing to do with Christ’s birth, and Easter is on a Sunday located by a lunar calendar, only randomly coinciding with Christ’s resurrection. BC (Before Christ) is now “Before the Christian Era” (BCE) and AD- Anno Domini – (“in the year of our Lord”) has been put in some form of Politically Incorrect Limbo as there are a bunch of Lords that have years, not just the Christian one. Names are not facts, they are man made and thus meaningless in every other reality except ours.

Oh, and by the way, “after further review” Jesus’ actual B-Day,Year 0, is, well, actually a few behind the advent of AD (or whatever its called now)…so its really about 2016, and we all just got 3 years older…or something.

Fall is the sledgehammer of time passage in the temperate world, as all that was green goes psychedelic, then dead, then, largely, gone. All this in a couple of weeks out of 52. Winter just freezes the death and frosts it occasional, spring has a couple of months in transition, amping up of green,and summer just comes to a boil and simmers.

The season cycle has burned into me that every passing one seems shorter, but each passed season seems farther away. That 4 year old boy boarding the kindergarten bus was at least half a lifetime ago, until I realize, objectively it is about 1/3 of my years past. Another son’s last football season seems to cap a similar half a lifetime until the calendar says it’s been 8 years.

To me the deepest truth in time passage is not the definitional names it imposes: child to man, summer to fall, football player to spectator -but that as it goes on, unrelentingly, its passage grinds one reality deeply into my lizard brain: there is no control.

We can name, measure, celebrate or co-opt the 4th dimension, but it proceeds with zero chance of manipulation, let alone control.

One of my dearest friends is one of the world’s gifted physicists. As we travelled to see one of my son’s last football games and mused about times passed, I asked: “Given an open checkbook and time line, will we ever be able to jump back or forward in time?” His answer was unequivocal and instant: “No.”

So as I fixate on the time left on the clock of one son’s game, or my wife ponders coloring her hair, or the man-child son counts the days until he is a resident of Illinois to save grad school tuition, we are measuring something that does not give a whit about our mechanisms and manipulations.

We can name seasons, create birthdays, force calendars onto solar orbits, invent Daylight Savings Time, but in the end it’s like trying to hold water in a sieve. Sorry, fellow hominids, we cannot control what we do not create.

Naming is not controlling. Measuring is not creating. Inventing meaning by defining the hour, the day, or the year only grids the wind. The bags under my eyes will be there no matter how much weight I lose.

That man will always be my child, my wife will be loved regardless of hair color, and I will never, ever, play football again – even if I have to look down at my feet occasionally to confirm I am not wearing cleats.

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