Friday, November 29, 2019

The Passage of Time

I'm late today because I "slept late" and only woke when Harry, my cat, began to meow outside my closed bedroom door. His stomach and the daylight had obviously told him that it was time for me to get up, brush, and feed him. The curious thing is that with daylight saving time, Harry, who is usually up and meowing between 8 and 9 in summer (because I am up late and he eats a bedtime snack) is now napping until between 10 and 11. Sometimes, when he is in my bedroom, he wakes up, notices that I am awake but not getting up, and cleans himself and goes back to sleep.

I'm writing about my cat and time because I wonder how it is to experience 24 hours if you are a cat (or a dog). What is it like to spend so much time napping? When we, who love our animals look at them and regret the speed with which the time with them seems to pass, do they have the same sense of time passing. Does my cat, Harry, who is now officially a senior at 13 years of age feel as if he has aged when he dashes through the house with even more glee than he did four years ago because he is much more "at home" than when I adopted him? Does he know about time passing when he plays like a kitten, chasing his own tail around and around? Maybe it's because of his breed, a Maine Coon mix, and how they age (or don't).

I'm thinking about all this because I had a birthday this month, and I've been pondering the passage of time. But I've also been thinking about cultural history and fiction. I woke up and headed to the computer this morning to do research because I've been thinking about the everyday lives of my characters in 1939. In my thriller, they are on the move -- traveling frequently by train because my protagonist is a Pullman sleeping car porter. Another character  is traveling back and forth between Georgia, where he lives on a plantation that his grandfather purchased before the Civil War. This character is involved in the state's preparation for the opening of the 1939 World's Fair in New York That fair is themed "the world of tomorrow." Another character migrates from a small city in Virginia to Harlem in New York City. And a fourth character moves from a summer home in northern Virginia to Nantucket. How do these characters experience time and place? Do they walk faster in New York City as I do when I go there from Albany? Or, did people in New York City walk slower in 1939?

With none of our modern technology-- mobile phones, Internet, television (debuting in 1939 at the World's Fair), are my characters really unplugged? Was radio an inherently slower experience? Or. were 1930s movies with chase scenes the equivalent experience of our chase scenes?

What about cooking with 1939 appliances? By virtue of technology, "slow cooking?"

I woke up and did a deep dive into a database called "America: History and Life" to see if anyone had written an article about this. What came up first was a wonderful book review in the February 1, 2013 issue of History & Theory by a scholar named Brian Fay. He calls his review "Hammer Time," a title that made me smile because it seemed a tongue-in-cheek reference to the performer who now does commercials. But the review is of a 2011 book by Espen Hammer in which Hammer examined what various philosophers had to say that might be relevant to our modern sense of time. Hammer, who Fay describes as a man of reason, takes as a given that we now perceive the passage of time as "a series of present moments each indefinitely leading to the next in an ordered way," We measure time by the clock. This allows us to have technological breakthroughs, but at the same time we have problems of "transience and memory."

In his review of Hammer's book, Fay was thoughtful and poetic in describing how he himself experiences time. He noted that as he watched his daughter running down the hall after her bath, he experienced time not only as moving forward toward the next moments of putting her to bed, but backward in time to when she was younger. Fay argues that any moment can be filled with "the what is, that what might-have-been, the what-will-be, the what has been, and the what was." These experiences reflect our perceptions, memories, expectations, hopes, fears, and regrets. Because of this, Fay argues, modern time seems to him to be "fundamentally multidimensional." And he wonders if there is any period (at least in modern history) when time hasn't been experienced in this way. How is the way T.S. Eliot perceives time in "Burnt Norton" and "Dry Salvages" differ from Shakespeare's Macbeth when he refers to "the petty pace from day to day" that lead to "dusty death " (Act 5, Scene 5, 19-28).

I know this may be a writer's dive "down the rabbit hole" of research. But I'm fascinated by this subject and I'm going to spend a bit of "my precious time" reading about it. I suspect that if I can grasp the sensory experience of the passage of time in 1939 (another period of uncertainty and anxiety but without the modern technology) than my book will be all the better for my deep dive.

Harry is awake again and after meowing and poking me with his paws to get my attention, he has stretched out beside my chair to remind me that it is time for his lunch. His stomach has told him that it is time, no need for a clock.

I look at the clock and realize half my day is already gone. Would I have experienced that in 1939? And if 40 is the new 30 now, what was it like then?

Harry's meowing. Got to go. 


Anna said...

I traveled back and forth across the continent by train as a youngster. A highlight of each trip was watching the Pullman porter make up the beds, followed at every step by a small cluster of admiring children. With amazing agility he flipped the seats flat to create the lower beds and stretched up to the upper bunks to tuck in the bedding, aided in his reach by a strategcally placed foot on the outer arm of the opposite seat. Added to that sharp memory is a slightly dimmer impression of the porter dozing at night while seated at the rear of the car---no bed for him! Looking back now, with more insight and imagination, I am in awe of his relentless cheer and stamina in a 24/7 job where he was always on call as a member of the "servant class."

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Hi Anna,

Thank you for that first-hand account! The Pullman porters have gotten more attention in the past couple of decades, and they've been interviewed for books about their jobs. But there are fewer first-hand accounts from the passengers. I hadn't thought about how impressed the children would be as the porter did everything exactly as he was required to do by the Pullman handbook that I found in a Chicago library. And you're right, they traveled many miles each month on little sleep. In fact, I found a chapter about that in an edited volume about workers and sleep deprivation.