A Storm in Which We Are All Lost
William Carlos Williams | Tempo Rubato | CFBR | Factoids
Quote of the Moment
Time is a storm in which we are all lost.
| William Carlos Williams
Tempo rubato is a musical term, meaning literally, ‘robbed time’. As Stanley Prim defines it,
In Italian, "rubare" means "to steal," and "tempo" means "time." Therefore "tempo rubato" means the time of some measures are stolen by the others.
I recently experienced my second bout of Covid: the week between Christmas and New Year’s was stolen from me. And, just as with the first go-around — almost exactly a year earlier — it felt as if time itself had shifted into a different gear.
A year ago, I wrote about this sense of time disintegration in Pandemic Time Distortion:
A recent research study shows that so-called ‘temporal disintegration’ was greatly amplified during the pandemic, where people experienced distortions in perceived time:
Continuity between past experiences, present life and future hopes is critical to one's well-being, and disruption of that synergy presents mental health challenges," said corresponding author E. Alison Holman, UCI professor of nursing. "We were able to measure this in a nationally representative sample of Americans as they were experiencing a protracted collective trauma, which has never been done before. This study is the first to document the prevalence and early predictors of these time distortions.
So this is another slice through time, our shifting and messy perceptions of time. In the case of the pandemic, our sense of time was distorted, with some people feeling time was slowed while others thought time was racing. In either case, it had become distorted.
The philosopher Josef Pieper made a distinction between horizontal and vertical time. The former is the everyday experience of linear clock time: five workdays and two days of leisure time, for example, and generally, proceeding at a consistent pace (although weekends might be experienced as passing too fast and the workweek too long).
But Pieper also wrote of vertical time, which Jenny Odell says runs “at right angles to work” in her new book, Saving Time. Her argument is that to find true leisure, you need to step out of the horizontal time dimension, in which leisure exists only to refresh us to return to work.
I believe there are two sorts of time distortion: a positive and a negative experience. The positive sensation of being transported out of the everyday hustle — walking in the shade at a park, meditating, moving by great music, gaining a sense of fullness when operating in a flow state, or even while sorting socks — can be deeply spiritual and transcendent. And later, when we come down to Earth, we may feel renewed, reborn, and more than just rested.
However, the pandemic-induced temporal disintegration is the evil twin of vertical time. We are shaken out of the normalcy of horizontal time into a shifting, vertiginous verticality without the sense of wonder or awe of positive time shifting. Instead of finding renewal and a sense of greater connection, we are fearful and unrested, battered by trauma and suffering a time concussion.
Many others have looked into the swirling storm that time can be. Tara McMullin’s perspective is that of an economic anthropologist, decrying the commodification of time:
Modernity made time disembodied.
The clock synced our lives to a machine rather than the sun or the seasons. Time became utilitarian rather than experiential. Time became something we could sell for an hourly wage or project fee. With every new advance in time-telling precision, we became further and further detached from our visceral, sensory experience of time.
Time, in a very real way, has gotten away from us.
Or, maybe we've gotten away from time.
What’s the harm? we may wonder. Perhaps this is an adaptation to the built world that is productive, even evolutionary. But I think we have to ask ourselves whether that adaptation really serves us or whether it serves existing systems of harm and exploitation. Or as L. M. Sacasas put it, “In innumerable ways we bend ourselves to fit the pattern of a techno-economic order that exists for its own sake and not for ours.” We created clocks to use as tools—and now the tool uses us.
The urgency of clock time shapes our society. It complicates our creativity. It disconnects us from our most precious values and relationships.
Urgency doesn’t only exist at the borders of our attention—the emergencies, the sparks of imagination, the rush jobs. No, we weave urgency into the fabric of how we structure work and life. If things feel especially urgent to you right now, you’re not alone. Maybe you’ve been daydreaming about several work projects, and now it feels like you have to do them all right now. Or maybe two weeks ago, it felt like you had plenty of time before that next deadline. But now that deadline is here, and it’s urgent. Or maybe that’s the attitude your client or employer is bringing into your work.
Her line — ‘We created clocks to use as tools—and now the tool uses us’ — is a wry paraphrase of a line often attributed to Marshall McLuhan — ‘we shape our tools, and thereafter, they shape us’ — (actually written by his friend and colleague John M. Culkin). She goes farther, saying that the clock ‘uses’ us, not just ‘shaping’ us. The clock itself is using us, exploiting us. Although we are the agents. It is as Shakespeare said:
The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.
McMullen’s sense of clock dominance is echoed by Anne Helen Petersen’s feelings about the difficulties due to the central role of calendars and time management in our lives:
We are starving for ways of conceiving of time that have nothing to do with mastery or optimization. They exist now, they preceded us, and they will follow us. They will not fix anyone’s life. They just promise to orient it around a different axis, with different priorities, that might not match our current understanding of “success,” but might also decouple time management and optimization from “success” altogether.
The time distortion I felt was not by my enslavement to clock and calendar time, though. It was more biological, like an infection or smoke inhalation.
Perhaps the one that best expresses this orientation to time is Katherine May, who said, ‘Time is a conjuring trick, but a necessary one’ and then focuses on the sense of dislocation that arises when our perception of time goes out of kilter. She wrote Wasn’t It Winter Just Yesterday? in November 2020, after a year of the pandemic:
Over the long summer, my brain gradually ground to a halt. At first I thought it would pass. It did not. A fog settled, grew thicker. I felt slow, and then slower, and then incapacitated. I couldn’t bear the thought of any more doing. I couldn’t do. When I tried to work, my attention flitted away like the soft avoidance of two magnets. I was engaged in a process of perpetual forgetting: I would try to work, and then find myself not working, and wonder, dazed, what had happened in between. In all these months since Covid arrived, while I was trying to be defiant and industrious, I was slowly winding down.
The suspended anxiety of this year is not entirely unfamiliar to me. I have fallen through the cracks of life before. I’ve come to think of these times of life as wintering, a season outside the usual ebb and flow, when the comforting bustle of everyday society falls out of reach. Most of us have been to this place. We arrive there in the wake of illness, depression or bereavement; that darkness may yawn open during major life events like divorce or job loss. However we come to it, wintering is usually involuntarily, lonely and bitterly painful.
This year has brought us into close contact with loss. Many winters have come all at once. But within these winters, there is the seed of something necessary. We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but they are in fact cyclical. As we grow older, we pass through phases of good health and ill, of optimism and deep doubt, of freedom and constraint. There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it all seems impossibly hard. Each time we endure the cycle, we learn from the previous round, and we do a few things better. This is how wisdom is made.
When the time arrives, we will be ready to go back into social spaces with a renewed sense of purpose, with compassion recharged. We will take better action because of it. We are learning something in this free-floating time. Something about the easy way that all human life can be overturned. Something about the slow heartbeat of the seasons.
Last year, my recovery consumed almost three months as I fell through ‘the cracks of life’. This year’s brush with Covid was only a pale shadow of the previous encounter, but I sank deep enough to hear the robbed notes in the theme of the movie I’ve been cast in. The calendar and the clock were pushed to one side, and the winter light dimmed.
Perhaps, as May figures, this is how wisdom is made. Maybe. But the making comes with a cost, and the reëmergence back into the world of calendars and clocks presents additional trauma but eventual recuperation. A lesson learned in the body, more than the mind.
Meme of the Moment: CFBR
Apparently, people are adding ‘CFBR’ when reposting LinkedIn messages for others looking for work, short for ‘Commenting For Better Reach’, I learned from Kalley Huang:
The expression is becoming ubiquitous on LinkedIn as tech workers who have lost their jobs in recent months are turning to the platform to look for new opportunities.
A short comment from a stranger could mean hundreds more people see a post about layoffs and come across a jobseeker’s profile.
Over the past six months, as the tech sector has had its worst contraction since the dot-com bust in the early 2000s, the number of people who have turned on the “open to work” feature on LinkedIn has increased 20 percent, to 18 million, a spokeswoman for the company said.
Stephan Meier, a professor at Columbia Business School, called commenting on a layoff post “a completely altruistic act,” especially if the commenter doesn’t know the poster. The activity around layoffs shows how much people rely on LinkedIn — and its algorithm — to network, he said.
I guess LinkedIn is good for something.
In September, [olive oil] prices reached their highest level since records began, rising by 117% year-on-year. | IMF
China’s need for more young workers might be the force that dismantles the Communist Party’s control.
Taiwan supplies supplying 63 percent of semiconductor chips and 73 percent of advanced chips worldwide. | Hung Tran
More than 12 Snickers bars are sold every second in the United States. | Paul Donovan
Donovan does a good job of explaining economic nostalgia, using the Snickers bar as an example. People remember the price level of goods the commonly buy, like candy, so an increase of ten cents drives them crazy, while a drop in price for a $1500 55-inch TV is forgotten.