Tag Archives: time

Stolen Time

20 Jun

While perusing the sprawling and unwieldy Word document in which I barf out thoughts for blog posts, I stumbled upon an article I’d stashed away for my post on my Georgetown reunion some months ago, but forgot and only now rediscovered. It’s an essay by Joseph Bottum, a 1981 Georgetown grad who has gone on to some prominence as a socially conservative intellectual, and once stole the hands off the clock tower on Georgetown’s Healy Hall. The theft of the clock hands on Healy is a timeless Hoya tradition, and after a period of relative rarity, it happened my senior year.

Bottum floats the thought that he and his co-conspirators were metaphorically trying to stop time, but concludes that they probably weren’t so clever. They were young, he says; they didn’t know what the passage of time meant, not really. I suggest he give his college-age self a little more credit: I titled the photo below “Georgetown Is Timeless” after snapping it back in 2012, and was definitely aiming for a certain symbolism. A 22-year-old is certainly capable of recognizing the march of time, of knowing that things aren’t as they used to be, and high school and college graduations tend to bring out the earnest reflections that stem from a first encounter with farewells, even if we know these are temporary and relatively painless shifts. Bottum’s point, however, is that these early markers of time’s passage mean little when weighed against the heavier ones that come with more final farewells.


For the luckiest among us, any consciousness of human mortality takes its time in rearing its head. Life progresses from one stage to another in smooth transitions. We have this vague sense of when changes are supposed to occur, and life’s failure to conform rips holes in our very conception of time. Bottum drives at this when he talks about how death seems different, depending on one’s age. When people my age die, it’s a shock and a tragedy; when people Bottum’s age die, it’s a bit too soon but an acknowledged possibility; a generation older, it’s no great shock, the natural passage of time. But time’s contours rarely behave in such an easy way, and before long each one of us is tested by something that disrupts this flow, great or small. No moment is more formative, and while I’d wish it on no one, it can also stir forth some of the most admirable human qualities in response.

Early brushes with mortality tend to age us prematurely, but they also distort all the time that came before them. Those preceding moments now seem all too short but linger forever, make one wonder if the way we flow through time, measured in minutes and seconds and hours and all lined up in perfect linear form, doesn’t mistake its true nature. Go deep into quantum physics and it will all break down, yes, but maybe the disconnect registers on a more immediate, deeper level, one that lets certain moments endure for an eternity while so much of our day-to-day lives fades into an unremarkable blur. No matter how long these moments may last on a clock or a calendar, their end will inevitably bring the sense that time has been stolen from us; time we’ll never have back save in the recesses of wandering minds. And so we preserve it there, make sure we never forget, and use it as best we can to form us in who we become.

We don’t need to steal clock hands to rebel against the march of time, but the thieves of Healy Hall do have lessons for us, whether we’re aware of them or not. When we become aware of stolen time we come in tune with far broader forces, and they ground us, make us believe things like the quote I shared on this day three years ago. When we know where we come from and know why it is we want to get to wherever we’re going, we can steal some time back ourselves.

Happy 19th, bro.

Utopia II: Farewell, 2014

31 Dec

Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea.

—Luisa, Y tu mama también

My 2014 is coming to an end at a villa overlooking the sea in the Virgin Islands. It’s not utopia, but it is a spectacular place, and I am blessed to be here once again.

It’s hard to pretend to know how one becomes fascinated with utopia, and the earliest childhood memories probably lurk behind it somewhere. But if I had to name a place where my own imagined ideal worlds were born, it was probably here, where I first came when I was nine. This led to something of an infatuation with tropical islands, and I can trace the whole arc of my invention of new worlds directly back to that trip.

Few things inspire quite the way travel does, with something new around every corner. This endless opening creates new possibilities, and digging into the details frees the imagination to embellish reality with our own little flourishes. The Virgin Islands were my first real trip into the unknown, and while I’d hardly call them the most exotic or inspiring places I’ve been—my host here cites the local “intellectual wasteland” as the reason he wouldn’t settle here, and I’m inclined to agree—it’s still a bit more than your run-of-the-mill beach vacation. The stories born from that trip, both childish and grandiose at once, slowly became my way of making sense of my world, with everything contemplated there, all great questions with their own place. In time, they made their way out of my mind and into the written word, with countless pages filled.

This time around, I’m not exactly questing for new inspiration. Whatever it was I set out to achieve when I first started writing in fall 2008, I’ve done it. That doesn’t mean I don’t still revisit and build on the past stuff, but it’s all right there before me now. 2014 was a decent year, and a good foundation for whatever may come next. The pace isn’t always ideal, but things are moving.

Where to? Hard to say, though that may be a good thing. Better to avoid the ideal image and instead chip away, somewhere within a framework that makes sense. I’m not sure where I’m going, but I have some idea of how to get there. That doesn’t mean it’s all about the means, and not at all about the ends—benchmarks are essential to keep things moving, and proper management of the utopian instinct isn’t quite content with simply doing one’s best, no matter the results. That hunger and desire can’t go away. One must seize the moments, stay in control—even when taking control means letting things go a bit. From a thoughtless afternoon in a hammock to an extra rum and coke, there are times when even the most relentless managers must lose themselves in the surf. One can aspire to both ends without contradiction.

I haven’t always managed that balance, and I’m as certain as anyone that we cannot build Jerusalem on earth. But to stand in the face of that impossibility and still carve out something good—what more can I ask for? As I enter my second quarter-century, many of the more fanciful dreams born of that first trip have washed back out to sea. But that doesn’t mean they still cannot be inspiration, and that things cannot all come together in, somewhere between dreams and reality in the flux I live through every day.

And so we move on to the next year. Here’s to continued progress, as the waves allow, and the wisdom to know when to barrel into them, and when to ride the tides. Somewhere in here, there are answers. The search goes on, but I’ll be home at the end of the night, as I always am.

‘Boyhood’ and Life in Time

31 Aug

Near the end Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the protagonist’s mother, Olivia, has a breakdown. Her son, Mason, is just about to head off to college, and she suddenly realizes that her life, long defined by the routine events of her children’s growth, will now lack any such signifiers.  A droll remark from Mason eases her back off the edge of the cliff, but—aside from making any boy away from home immediately want to call his mother—her moment of realization shows how we make sense of the passage of time. Filmed over the course of twelve years with the same actors, this is Boyhood’s revelation: it distills a childhood into a series of memories, flashing by in jarring little vignettes, exactly as we’d all remember it all as we look back on our first eighteen years.

Some of these moments are obvious, shared across many lives: family moves, fights with stepfathers, a first drink, a memorable 15th birthday, first sex. Others are distinct to Mason’s memory: his sister’s mannerisms, a haircut forced by a stepfather, a camping trip with real dad just after Mason’s voice drops, a change that coincides with his acceptance of his wandering father’s role in his life. There is no serious attempt to build a narrative through them all, but it all fits together seamlessly because this, we know, is how life flows. Meaning only comes out in retrospect, and often in the strangest of places. Boyhood knows this intimately.

Boyhood, for Linklater, is far from a youthful idyll, and one suspects it would have been the same even if the protagonist hadn’t been the child of a single mother who sometimes struggles to make ends meet. It is often defined by its most painful moments, and awkwardness and social struggle abounds. Those moments of boyish bliss are there from time to time, but the film persistently reminds us that innocence is far from the starting state of human life. Even so, nostalgia builds as the moments flash by, the past always seeming a bit less complicated simply because there was less for us to remember. Memory is the root of complication that breeds frustration, yet only by fitting those memories into a story does anything begin to make sense.

Manhood is just as much of a theme as boyhood in the film. Olivia’s three lovers are all sorry weaklings, two alcoholics desperately trying to impose order on a world that won’t cooperate, and Mason Senior, who spends the first forty years of his life just going with the flow, failing to take on anything more than the most routine responsibilities. Ethan Hawke’s Mason Senior is aware enough to recognize this, but only in time does he move past his self-absorption and see his son as a partner in a journey, one who is very much his own son, and in need of a guide who has been down this road and learned a thing or two. His growth over the course of the film is as dramatic as Mason’s, and his time away from his son gives him a sense of perspective that Olivia, forever down in the trenches, cannot match.

Mason doesn’t find much in the way of male peer companionship, either. As an introvert whose family is often on the move, he builds little that lasts, and his friends rarely aspire to anything more than instant gratification. It’s no wonder that his relationships with girls come to predominate the last hour of the film. He plays along with the dalliances of his peers without any serious discomfort, but he aspires to something else and wanders alone, his father coming out in him as he loses himself in photography. Here, finally, he finds an outside adult who takes interest, a photography teacher who tries to give his work ethic a bit of a nudge. Somewhere in here are the beginnings of a serious investigation of manhood in modern American life, a fascinating topic never far from my mind whose delicacy has kept me from tackling it head-on in this blog to date. (Too often, the fate of boys is tied up in a comparison to girls. While this has considerable merit—as the prevalence of certain gaps and some of the teenage misogyny in the film shows—the experience of growing up male needs to be confronted on its own terms, not just in relation to the opposite sex.)

Boyhood takes cinematic realism toward its furthest possible extreme. There is nothing at all remarkable in the circumstances of Mason’s childhood; sure, his home life is far from ideal and he dabbles in drugs at a relatively young age, but none of this goes to the extreme. It is just the story of a childhood, only one step removed from a documentary. The film looks good, but there are relatively few artistic and philosophical flourishes, separating Boyhood from the “self-conscious grandiosity” (in the words of Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post) of the similarly-themed Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. Malick takes ordinary life and tries to find transcendent meaning; Linklater takes ordinary life and revels in the simple idea of being ordinary. If Malick echoes Kierkegaard, Linklater echoes Camus.

Of course, some critics would rather have their grandiose gestures (and lest I sound opposed to them, I adore Tree of Life). In a withering takedown of all things that attempt to be “relatable,” Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker blasts Boyhood as “the apotheosis” of art aiming to speak to viewers on a solipsistic level, with the novelty of the passage of time covering up a “the banality of the plot and the cliché nature of much of its characterization.” This trouble will confront any work of art that tries to describe things as they are, and trying to pin down an “average” American childhood or other such experience will inevitably hit upon a number of well-worn themes.

There is more to Boyhood, however, than just relatability and the novelty of the twelve-year project. Parts of Mason’s childhood are clearly relatable, but that’s hardly true for every viewer, and there is just enough instability in his life that a happy ending isn’t quite a given. There is something else going on here. The philosophical musings of Mason and his teenage friends, while often half-formed and not entirely original, are also not thoughts straight out of a can. The struggle is evident, and if that’s what is most “relatable” here, it is because this really is a universal: we all face these questions in life, and they do not come along as platonic ideals placed in front of us by some philosophy professor up in the sky, but within the muck of daily life as we confront obstacles with which we have no prior experience. We’re frustrated and we don’t quite see the full picture, and thus the things Mason and company observe don’t seem hackneyed; they’re genuine struggles. Unlike most any other film, they really don’t know where their story will go.

This is how the Big Questions in life come to us, and Boyhood captures that lurching evolution in a novel, precise manner. If the goal of social realism is to show us how we live, Boyhood gives the ‘how’ a new dimension, grappling not just with the passage of time, but the manner in which we perceive and remember it. It’s not relatable just because people can see bits of themselves in Mason, but because their very experience of living is just like Mason’s. Boyhood is art that seeks to make sense of life, and while that is not all that art can or should do, its power in this field overwhelms any weaknesses elsewhere. It is a triumph.

Adios, 2013

31 Dec

I’ve never found a good way to express my bafflement of the passage of time. Just trying to answer the question ‘what is time?’ is trouble enough. But yet it goes on, passes us by, even in years like this past one, which for me was one of relative stasis. There were no great adventures, no decisive moves; just the steady rhythms of life somewhere in the vast white north of Minnesota. It’s been an interesting test. I’m a born dreamer, one who often lives in places where I am not, both real and imagined. I’ve always had a tendency to wander, whether down the darkened streets of my neighborhood or through worlds that exist only in my head. There is so much to see, so many little corners to explore and make sense of, and that force has driven most of my decisions to date. But that life up in the clouds of my mind has its drawbacks, and obsessive fascination with the outside can quickly become anchorless, and turn paradoxically inward into self-absorption. And so my retreat to Duluth has, paradoxically, had me fighting against that. So I started to take a few older obligations more seriously. I became a more active citizen. I wrote a novel, and I started a blog; neither one is likely to reshape the world much, but they’ve gotten a few things across, a process that I hope to continue. When it comes to Big Questions About Life, I’ve never been in a better place, and that has started to filter down into other places. Lingering anxieties seem far less important than they once did, old worries rendered trivial by new wisdom and evolving thought, often startlingly simple in its clarity. I had to go home to be set free, but it might, finally, be happening. My twenty-fourth year on this earth will, most likely, involve another venture outward, in one way or another. It’s time. There is no grand vision this time, but that now seems more like a triumph than a failing. It will be less in the ideal and more in the real. I’ll simply ride the moods and try to seize the opportunities that come along. Many of the constants will still be there: Duluth, the family gatherings, the little routines, the old friends worth holding on to, and (of course!) the hockey. I know plenty of people will laugh at the notion of someone my age feeling old, but as the glory days fade into history, I’ll admit to a few moments of angst. This is especially true for someone who’s subjected his own early years to a brutally intense self-examination, and someone who can’t forget the ‘what ifs.’ Still, the time has come, and I’m past the point where I can pretend to be a kid anymore. The good news is that those glory days don’t have to end. That doesn’t mean we don’t grow up; no, we do have to mature, and the march of time will trample anyone who stays for too long. But we can always go back, and as long as we have that, well, what more do we need? And so we head back, for one last time in 2013, for one last evening of youthful delight, a moment frozen in the frigid Duluth night. We carry it with us, unable to forget, no matter how far we wander. I’ll let the last song on the presumptive album of the year have the last word. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKZUQXxM6-Q