It’s not just the hours. The days slip right out from beneath me.
Clock says 11:00 a.m. Still a few precious hours before I go get the kids from school. These hours, the ones that belong to me, are tick tick ticking away. I walk past the clock, always eyeing it, jealously eyeing it. Suddenly I turn back, “Aha! Caught you!” But it reads 11:01. But next thing I know, as soon as I get interested and involved, the clock jumps ahead to 2:35. The last bell of school. I try to catch the clock in the act, its jumping past me in chunks just when I’m getting busy, but I can’t, in some Heisenbergish Prinicipal of mockery.
I am furious with the clock. I can’t beat it. It owns me. It makes me drive rakishly fast through town, curse lines in the grocery store, hate the vast quantities in my inbox that suck it down. I am especially perplexed when it vaporizes when I’m having fun, say, writing.
Time’s fun when you ‘re having flies, someone said.
I need to run that “Moving Clocks Run Slow” experiment, which I understand is a misnomer, but I don’t understand exactly why: A clock ticking in a supersonic jet lapses less time than a clock ticking down below, on Earth. This proved what Einstein intuited before we broke the sound barrier, that time is relative. Time is relative in the worst way. (You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your relatives, another someone said.)
As my free time ticks into its vapor trail, I am filled with rage. Why can’t time flow normally, when I need it most? If I just continue speeding my way through the day, why doesn’t time run slow?
Incidently, the funniest subtitle ever goes to Albert Einstein’s book (1916), “Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, A Clear Explanation That Anyone Can Understand.”
Clearly, I don’t understand.
Time was timeless when I was little. Time stood still, but not in a good way, when I researched and helped write grants for MRI studies of diseased livers. The liver is a Very Boring Organ. Every time I looked at the clock in that particular job and willed it to just please jump ahead a few hours and put me out of my misery, its dials slunk around the clock’s blank face. That job was not good for my liver. After hours.
The clock seems not to be my friend. Everyone notices that as they get older that time seems to speed up. I was twistedly relieved to read a passage in Hope Edelman’s latest memoir, The Possibility of Everything, about how the ancient Mayans viewed time and understood that the future accelerates, that each coming segment of time gets shorter and shorter. You’d think the Mayans felt they had all the time in the world, at least until 2012.
Maybe the Mayans had a problem with time, like I do, except they didn’t have a mocking clock. Maybe the scribes were getting older when they wrote that bit on accelerating time.
Deepak Chopra assures us that “Time isn’t working against you. Everyone needs to overcome this outworn belief. We can stop giving in to time as if it rules our lives.” Really?
Deep’ takes it one step further: “If we force our own limited conception of time and deadlines upon ourselves we disrupt these rhythms and become a victim of time. Whatever breaks down your body’s timing, creates aging.”
You can’t have eggs without salt. I’m too far from my predatory roots to enjoy the quick snap and slurp of a stolen shell. I need to scramble my eggs on a propane-fueled cook stove, scramble them just like the heat- and pressure-scrambled rocks around us. Back in La Mesa, we moved the salt and pepper from the picnic basket to our emergency earthquake supplies, prioritizing, intuiting that the need for spices was imminent. We haven’t had a major earthquake in way too long: the earth is grinding, hitched, holding, so we packed the important stuff into The Big One boxes, and now found ourselves camping on the largest earthquake fault zone in North America without salt and pepper in our picnic basket. Charlie pointed out the irony after I complained about the tasteless eggs. Do we need a 7.5 earthquake to enjoy a decent scramble?
We joined the Stanford club on this weekend’s outing, led by Monte Marshall, geologist and geophysicist emeritus from SDSU. Monte grew up in San Diego, got his PhD at Stanford, a good decade or two before Charlie passed through. We crouched and chatted under an 8-million-year towering sandstone cliff, in Box Canyon, near Painted Canyon in the Mecca Hills where we began our hikes into the past. Last major earthquake at this spot was some 300 years ago. Not good. When’s St. Andy going to pop? Hopefully not tonight. I don’t like that car-sized boulder resting next to our tent. It crumbled off the upthrust mountain flanking our sleeping canyon, during who knows what event when.
I was in the Loma Prieta earthquake, during the World Series in 1989. Headed for my car and bang! had to hold onto a tree in our jiggling topsy-turvy business park. My friend, Karen, almost got slammed by a heavy filing cabinet as she narrowly escaped out her office door. My apartment in San Franscisco was a mere three miles from where people and their cars accordioned into a collapsed Bay Bridge, dying, thirsty, forced to spend the worst nights of their lives until rescue or death. Thinking about them made it hard for me to sleep in my comfortable bed. I wanted to call out to them across the City and its rippling Bay waters, Hold On! Please hold on.
The 6-million-old San Andreas fault snakes through these Mecca Hills, skirts the Salton Sea, and heads on down into Mexico and up past San Franscisco. This naughtly little mountain builder, this is the edge where two tectonic plates, the North American and Pacific, grind elbows and topple cities in their sibling rivalry for movement. And who knows? Maybe the tectonic plates are fueled by magnetic currents in the mantle and any destruction to civilizations inhabiting their relatively thin crusts above is really not their fault.
Bear with me through the puns. The really cool rocks, literally cooled now, are 1.8 billion years old, which we pondered and touched as we hiked up the canyon, blackish greenish gneiss and schist with white feldspar veins lapping through, sitting as the basement under fluffy tan sandstone cliffs, which we dismissed as modern and irrelevant, a mere 8 million years.
The basement rock, these darker, precambrian sedimentary layers, formed when our continent lived in another time zone and perhaps on a latitude that now hosts diving seals and Antarctic research stations–who knows what part of Pangaea these layers first settled upon–then were chucked up violently, thrust out of earth’s cemetery for us to gawk at, caress, even sit on (since they’re pretty cool), thanks to the San Andreas fault, strike-slip zones, or subduction zones where one part of the crust dives under another and causes massive mountain building.
Orogeny leads to Cataclysmic Mountain Slides.
We set up camp as far away from the crumbing sandstone cliffs as possible. We slept next to a huge boulder–when did that topple down? I didn’t want to be in the way of any future headaches.
Maeve and her friend Maddison scaled the scarps, traversed the fins of mudstone ridges that got squeezed up during the last earthquake here. I read the rocks like a history book with scrambled up pages. Pages of a once-sedimentary sea bed, or river bed compacted with its contemporary rocks and gravel, with thousands of seas and river layers atop and compressed into one-inch layers down toward the mantle, then torqued 90 degrees and thrust thousands of feet above, back into the sky, where they had once settled and sank, now rippled, bent, twisted. Powerful force, this restless earth.
Three hundred years is too long for grinding plates to not relieve pressure. The Pacific plate is trying to zipper North, secede from the North Atlantic plate. It would have been nice to straddle that fault line, on our hike, but earth has filled the crevice with soil, in these ensuing 300 years, the last time there was a rupture this part of the fault. We settled for signs of pressure, squeeze, and polish when Monte struck his geologic hammer into the mudstone hillside and retrieved rocks that revealed their sudden pressured exodus from deeper within the crust. I took one, to put on my desk.
I thought everybody knew about tectonic plate movement and that it existed forever. Not so, theoretically. When Monte was a student in the early 70s, the chair of his department scoffed at such novel theories. When Monte went to a conference in Russia in the mid 70s, scientists tethered to communist-closed information and policy still laughed at him. But when he went to a conference in Siberia in the early 90s, the old-guard, still alive and kicking, didn’t believe in the new- now old-fangled tectonic-plate theories. Well, at least we don’t have to do blood sacrifices when mother earth rears her ferocious head.
The best part of the weekend was when, Saturday night, after an appetizer-happy hour, we set out with flash lights into a darkened slot canyon, a freak feature of geology that is nonetheless beautiful. Monte thought it would be much more fun to climb through it in the dark, with a slit of stars overhead.
A woman hiked ahead, reassuring her claustrophobic, perhaps acrophobic—Stanford-grad daughter, that she would be ok. This older woman, but not so old, wearing a man’s wedding ring on her index finger, boldly climbed, squeezed and scrambled through places only magma should climb; and then came daughters, younger children, and other people with dogs.
I found it mildly hilarious that Monte never said that anything was too difficult for anyone or anyone’s animals, regardless of lawyers in the Stanford alum club. That he was fearless of lawsuit and litigation, just like old Europe. He did say that if he ever thought of such liabilities, he would never host such outings. But he did ask himself, lying awake the night before the weekend, ‘should I take these people into this potentially dangerous fault zone—who knows when it’s going to rupture again…and yet it never does when I take my classes up there.’
And he did say to us that children should stay with their parents at night in the slot canyon at all times. Which the index ring-fingered widow already knew.
I marveled, earlier in the day, how Monte himself scrambled up a scarp that I was tempted to scoot back down on my butt. When I watched him closely, his hands shook with the shaking that comes with an imminent older age that will rage, rage against the coming night, rage rage for a midnight hike. After a most pleasant happy hour with intelligent conversationalists. (Tho I must say to the ex-fusion research guy who was extolling the cheapness of nuclear power, dude, even with breeder facilities you’ll still have to dump waste in Yucca Mountain, and what’s the long-term price of that?)
In the slot canyon, everyone heaved and helped, with boosts, hand holds, miners’ lamps, flashlights. At one point, a rock arrow pointed off the sand trail to the left, but many had already stepped over the minor rock lintel next to it and kept moving forward. One man asked if anyone read ar(row)bic and I exulted about hiking among clever punsters, knowing all would be well. Someone spotted a tarantula and we were all curious, except my daughter Maeve, who tends to be incuriously arachnaphobic. The arrow-followers ended up on an endless hike, whereas we lintel-hoppers came out through the slot canyon into a star-studded mesa-topped sky. We climbed out onto a landing, of sorts, with a rock cairn pointing our way. Maeve and Megan, unfortunately, saw this as proof that the Blair Witch comes out even to mesas coughed up by the San Andreas.
One of my favorite words is reification (now that you can use my most hated words against me). Sounds like a meaningless jumble of morphemes, doesn’t it?
It’s one of the most life-changing words I’ve ever experienced.
You may not know it, but you reify. A lot. We all do. Every time you regard something that’s abstract (a concept, an idea, a word) as the real thing, as something material or concrete, you’re reifying.
Take the number 2, for example. Caught you! “Two” or “2” is a concept, an idea, a word. Except in the Platonic world, there’s really no such thing as 2. Get my drift? It seems as real as the candle on the cake, I know, but “2” stands for the idea of two years. Now blow.
Here’s where I run into real-world practical trouble with reification.
We’re in a restaurant. The menu before me promises every earthly delight from beast to legume. I’m in feast fantasyland, can’t decide, want everybody to order everything so I can taste it all.
Note the menu doesn’t say “bean, slab of meat from cow, cleaned flesh from fowl, piece of pig with hairy root vegetables, mussels with brine and beard recently scraped off.”
Nope, it’s “haricot vert”—and how I love the way the French syllables tumble over my tongue while my word-taste buds salivate to “sautéed in a savory shallot-white wine-balsamic dill-rosemary-caper sauce.” Then the plate comes. And they’re just green beans, after all. Damn.
Even champignon sounds better than “pungent little fungi that feed on decayed matter.” Seems the French are best at this snow job.
Think about it:
It doesn’t taste as good as it reads.
(If only I could eat my words sometimes.)
I would imagine that reification tastes something like sawdust or the empty vacuum of space. Alienation. A separation of the word from the thing.