The Human Condition:

The Years Rush By – January 5, 2014

Rushing traffic

Where did 2013 go? I know I lived through it. I mean, it’s not like I went into a coma or disappeared—or not too much—into that combination daydream and typing trance which descends when I’m writing a novel. Yet the year seems to have rushed by. Weren’t we just celebrating the holidays and New Year 2013? What happened?

I’ve noticed this more and more as I grow older. Time seems to be collapsing on me.

As a child I can remember an hour seeming like an intolerably long span of time, especially if I was stuck in a boring class or waiting for something like a doctor’s appointment. It probably went by faster if I was having fun, but I can still recall afternoons of riding around on my bike1 or playing with friends that were satisfyingly long and indulgent. By the end of the day, the morning and breakfast seemed a long time ago.

The school year lasted forever back then. As we got toward June, the two-week break over the Christmas holidays was a distant memory. Yet summer vacation was just ahead: three whole months of play in the sunshine, and it would last forever, too. By the end of August, with the prospect of school looming again, that day of blessed release back in June was also just a distant memory.

Now the hours fly by. I can barely start a project and the morning is half gone. The day fills up with things to do: maintenance activities like eating, grooming, errands, and chores, as well as project work and the inevitable interruptions.2 When I was working full-time at a corporate office, I often had to stay late for an hour or two just to “clear the decks” for the next day’s work before I could go home. And once or twice a month I would come in on a Saturday to catch up … and all this while I was considered a fast and efficient worker.

The seasons appear and disappear, not quite like the flicker of lights in windows on a passing train, but nearly so. Hey, it’s spring, are the days getting longer? Oh, it’s summer, and there’s fog on the Bay. Is it September already? … And the seasons are just standing in for the years, which fly by. I actually lose track sometimes. Did that happen last year, or the year before? Was it really five years ago that we went on that trip? Nine years since we got the dog?

Some of this is simply an effect of being a busy adult with more to do than any child in grade school. But not all of it. When I became semi-retired from the business world and just worked by writing my books, I expected the time stream to slow down, for the days to grow longer, and the years to resume their childhood pace. But it hasn’t happened. If anything, the hours pass like minutes, the days like half the usual allotment of hours, and the years seem about five months long. And time is melting on me faster and faster.

I believe this experience of time collapsing has to do with perspective. At the age of five, six, or seven a person has not had much experience of time at all. An hour or a day is a big chunk of time compared to what he or she knows from previous experience. A year accounts for only a fifth (20%), a sixth (16.66%), or a seventh (14.28%) of his or her total time on Earth. One walks slowly through such large segments of time.3 On the other hand, by age 50, a full year represents just two percent of one’s life experience, and it grows incrementally less as each year passes.

This is not unlike our experience of space and distance. When you first make a certain trip, by any route you can identify and repeat—from out beyond the suburbs into the city, or from one side of the state to the other, or across the whole country—it will seem to take a long time and cover a lot of ground.4 But the second, third, or fourth time you take that route, it will seem shorter, more familiar, less intimidating. If you make the trip weekly, as part of your business travels, or if it becomes your daily commute, it will seem even shorter and less involved. Again, it’s a matter of perspective and attention span. The more often you’ve seen that ground, the more your attention can block out—or do a mini-edit on—the various particulars.5 The ground literally collapses in your mind, the way the time stream collapses in your life.

If the promise of modern medicine and technology holds true, we are all going to live longer through better nutrition, better management of life’s stresses and risks, better understanding of the body and its vulnerability to aging and disease, more reliable medical diagnostics and treatments, organ regeneration and replacement through stem cell manipulation, and all the other advances coming our way. In tune with that, we will also need to work on our personal psychology and our perception of time. What is the benefit of living longer—not just a few years, but a few hundred or a thousand—if the end result is those extra years passing like hours, and the hours passing like seconds? Why, we’d still be dead in no time at all!

1. A big, metallic-maroon Schwinn bicycle with no gears and a single coaster brake. But it had steel panels, rather like bodywork, that filled the space between the transverse bars. It also had a big, battery-powered headlight and heavy tires with whitewalls. It was not spiritually unlike, but had not yet developed into, some of the motorcycles I would ride in later years.

2. As a writer and editor—which describes almost all of my adult working life—I never could be protective of my time at the keyboard. In the modern business world, with telephone calls and urgent emails to answer, you can’t cocoon yourself to get the work done. I learned to parcel my time early on, when I was working as a technical writer producing reports and proposals at an engineering and construction firm. This was truly the world of “absolutely, positively gotta be there overnight,” with distractions coming every ten minutes, sometimes every five.
       I learned to handle interruptions like a computer program putting tasks onto a “stack.” (Think of plates pushed onto the spring-loaded dispenser in a cafeteria line.) So, I would be working on a piece of writing, get interrupted by an email request and start handling that, then get interrupted by a phone call and start researching that, then have someone appear at my desk or in my office doorway and try to answer his or her question … I found I could deal with about seven levels of interruption, seven “plates” on my stack, before I began to lose track of where I was. In time, I could work like an air traffic controller at JFK, just stack up those jumbo jets in line and deal with them one by one.

3. Comparatively, a newborn baby not yet a month or a year old must have an almost frozen sense of time, although none of us can remember that far back and recall the experience. In a way, the newborn’s sense of time must be like that of an astronaut traveling at very nearly the speed of light: nothing … much … happens … for a … long … time.

4. Back when I worked in Oakland or San Francisco, less than a dozen miles from my home in the East Bay, going down the Peninsula to San Mateo or Palo Alto, covering three times that “normal” commute distance, seemed to take me far away and consume a lot of time. It would be an excursion rather than a simple trip. But then I signed on to a job in Foster City, right next to San Mateo, and commuted on that route for ten years. At the end of those years, even though with commute traffic the trip took longer—forty-five minutes in the morning, hour and a half in the evening—it seemed much shorter. Everything depends on what you’re used to, and that alters your perspective.

5. Some of this also has to do with latent anxiety. The first time you make any trip, you are looking out for street signs, exit ramps, map references, and other guides along the way. The second or third time, you’re more confident and remember the route. The umpteenth time, it’s a blur of useless knowledge, and you don’t even think about street signs and exits, but are simply driving by rote in full-brain automatic.