The Calendar Self: Memory & Time

I do not believe that time and chronology are mutually inclusive. There are versions of time that have nothing to do with the linear or the ordered. And then there are those versions of time that are only ordered. Concrete time (others call it “clock time”) is the grid laid over days and weeks. It dictates when I set an alarm, when I head to the airport, and when I make a doctor’s appointment. Concrete time sorts and prioritizes. Yet I find it confounding, and, for all its accuracy, clumsy.

We superimpose this mechanical time over an spontaneous, organic thing — human consciousness – and expect that it should fit, but it doesn’t. I do not think chronologically or linearly. When I sit down for breakfast each morning, the past does not come scrolling through my mind in order of first appearance. I catch a fish at age five, break my thumb at 13, rewind back to four where I hide from my grandfather under the living room sofa, and then rocket to 20, where, while visiting Spain with a girlfriend, I realize I am in love. All in the time it took me to have a sip of coffee.

I experience these moments outside of chronology but with a definite sense of time, place, and with palpable emotion. I call that conceptual time. Conceptual time is amorphous and changeable. It occurs beyond the calendar’s grid. In fact, conceptual time only occurs within: it is unique, “lifetime” time.

I have always understood time to be estimative — a way of sorting the larger chunks of life, the ones that don’t conform to logical, linear time. The minutes don’t matter, nor do days. Conceptual time forms soft boundaries around memory and experience much like the lines on early maps tentatively laid out the unknown. Events are organized into masses that have firmer connections to place than to any concrete chronology. The year I spent in Portland, Oregon, is called to mind much more clearly if I can think of the kitchen in the house I rented and the meals I cooked there, rather than the year — 2001 — which is meaningless on its own.

I remember the first snow my first year in Brooklyn. It takes some furrowing of my brow to come up with the exact year – I finally do figure it out by remembering the first rent check I wrote to my landlord, and the date on the check: September 1, 2003. So some months later, probably in November (but really who knows?) I went down to the street in the middle of the night so I could be the first to put my footprints into the white. I was impressed by how quiet and small my chaotic Brooklyn had become.

That moment – the minutes I stood on the street, wondering how a bustling city could fall so silent — is rooted in time and I relate it the story in the past tense. But more so it is rooted in the abstract time that can occur any day or any place, because it is a memory. And that memory of the first snow evokes a instant feeling, a tangible change in my mood and my sensory perception, as if by remembering the moment of fresh snow on the ground I have actually traveled back in time. In that way memory and time – not mechanical time, but the passage of time – are the same thing. Conceptual time is more of a time machine than a measuring device. It opens up a hole in the orderly grid and lets the past bubble up.

Take today for instance: cool, breezy, bright. It is as if New York has suddenly been transported to the yard in front of my little apartment here in Austin. I am almost certain that I could close my eyes, step forward, open them, and find myself on Greenwich Ave in the West Village. I worked at a bookstore in the neighborhood, and every day at noon I walked to the sandwich shop at 48 Greenwich to get an iced coffee. The shop owner and I had the same exchange every time: he’d ask if I wanted iced coffee with milk and no sugar, and I’d say yes, and he’d say “coming right up in no time!” and grin the stupidest and most friendliest grin.

Another man in the cafe would start on my order while Renaldo and I made chitchat about weather and work. We saw each other every week, occasionally multiple times a week, yet our conversations hardly differed. It took two months before Renaldo and I finally got around to learning each other’s names, and once we knew it was still awkward.

I had five minutes to hurry to the sandwich shop for my coffee; once there five minutes stretched into awkward ages while Renaldo smiled at me from across the counter, and I stared at my shoes. How should I quantify that time? Certainly not in hours or minutes or seconds. My concept of time changed even as I stood at the counter, waiting. The memory itself is recalled in but a few seconds. The actual memory is months long. For something as supposedly fixed as time that’s a lot of variation.

I subscribe to this philosophy: memory is real, and time is theory. The two are connected by thin strands, a tenuous web that is flexible and constantly changing, knitted on the fly. That might explain why in one minute I can travel, via memory, from past to future; from west coast to east, but I cannot think of a day, Monday, and immediately recall all previous Mondays. There is the day I met my good friend Mike (that might have been a Monday) and then there is the collective memory of stepping out of the bookstore every week for a year to buy iced coffee from a man named Renaldo. There is the day I broke my toe on a railroad tie, and then the day, weeks later, I found a dead possum at the foot of the stairs. How do I know that I found the possum a few weeks later, and not two months? Because I remember limping lamely down the stairs to check on the poor critter.

Every one of my memories – from the sight of first snow in Brooklyn, to my broken toe – occur concurrently and separately. I can sort these memories with various anchors or bookmarks, should I choose to. But I must still randomly jump the links of the conceptual timeline to get from point to point. There is no direct path between A and B. Memory is ex-temporal, yet possesses a time of it’s own. Culled, collated, laid-out end to end, my memories are probably the most accurate personal clock I’ve ever owned. The problem is, I’m the only one who can read it.

Art that makes me uncomfortable: Tehching Hsieh

Cell installation

When I can’t sleep, I do what everyone else does: surf the internet. But in an effort to make myself feel like I’m not totally wasting my brain, I limit myself to reading Reuters, the New York Times, BBC News, and a few book blogs. This isn’t the best idea — oftener then not I get my brain worked up and end up more restless and sleep-deprived than I started. Anyway, last night, at 12:55am, I find an article in the Times about Tehching Hsieh, a Chinese performance artist and painter who hitched a ride to the United States on an oil tanker. Hsieh’s first performance art pieces are rather grim: he jumped from a two-story building and broke both ankles, and then had a half-ton of wallboard hefted onto his chest until he nearly smothered. Is that art? Or simply self-destructive?

His later pieces are more interesting, but they also make me shiver. Not for the physical impact as much as the psychological. Whereas a few hundred pounds of sheetrock can be lifted off, the impact of spending a year in a prison cell refusing to speak, read, or write is profound. Or how about donning a uniform and clocking in at a time-stamp machine every hour, night and day, for a year?

Still, within Hsieh’s pieces I can identify something that speaks to me — a personal desire or need for pushing boundaries, or setting myself to impossible tasks. (Melville: “God keep me from ever completing anything.”) Once I had a vision that I would write up a catalog card for every day that I could recall out of a designated five-year period. I own an old wooden 50-drawer card catalog. I was going to file away my life and then put it on display. I’d have to set a time limit within which to write up the cards, or I’d be toiling away at it until I died. Think of how many small memories spring up over time — the process would never end otherwise. Add to that the agony of intense, obsessive self-examination. But Hsieh? To examine his life, he chooses to spend a year in a wooden cell, refusing to do anything but think: “Every three weeks he allowed spectators, but he did not acknowledge them. He was too busy thinking — about his past, his art, the passing of time and the boundaries of space.”

The idea of locking oneself away for a year is strangely appealing, as is the silence that Hsieh enforced on himself. Try not speaking for a mere week — I did it once, sort of,* and there was a persistent tightening in my chest until a calm came about the third day. Suddenly I found I couldn’t speak. The fifth day I gave up, let out a breath, hightailed it to a bar and talked a few strangers’ ears off. I broke my silence at the bar because though I couldn’t take it anymore, I found I needed to be anonymous to get my voice back. Anyone who can do that for an entire year, well, I wouldn’t hesitate to use the term “pathological.”

I’d certainly like to see the exhibit. Alas/thank god I no longer live in New York.

* I was a full-time freelancer in a freelance gig slump, living alone in a giant loft in Brooklyn with hardly any furniture. Not speaking for a few days was pretty easy. But I didn’t last the full week, and I think I spoke to the cat a few times. Truly I am weak.

“I Am Where?” Maps & the Creative Process

I’ve been reading/browsing a book called You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, edited by Katharine Harmon. I love maps, especially eccentrically personal ones, or maps crafted out of woefully inadequate datasets. In 2006 went to the NYPL Map Room exhibit, “Treasured Maps”. A remarkable exhibition overall, but my favorite was a series of twenty-one plates engraved by Sidney Hall*. The plates are from Edward Quin’s An Historical Atlas, published in 1828, and depict the expansion of the world—the unfurling of civilization. The first map shows Eden, circa 2348 BCE, surrounded by ominous black clouds. As one progresses through the pages and through time the clouds roll back, revealing the world as it was understood to exist in each moment in history, starting with Eden, continuing through the decline of the Roman Empire, and ending with “The End of the General Peace” in 1828 CE, which looks like any modern map of the world. (Most of the series can be seen here.)

I recalled the Hall engravings after seeing a few Liliana Porter prints on display at the Blanton Museum in Austin, Texas. (Porter’s work was part of a special exhibition, The New York Graphic Workshop, 1964–1970.) These particular prints abstractly depict a man in a small square room. (He is supposedly passing by a window, but I think that might be the Blanton’s interpretation — I just thought, Oh, that’s a man in a small square room.) The entire image is fragmented across four or five prints, each showing a different part of the whole. The high degree of simplification — there are no discernible human features, just flat black shapes on white paper — means it takes a second to realize what you’re looking at, and then another to go back through the series and assemble the fragments in your mind to create the whole.

Hall’s engravings and Porter’s prints are about not-knowing, or not-knowing-enough, and how the mind struggles to produce a complete concept. Porter’s series demonstrates this knowingly; Hall simply wanted a clever way to teach history. But his gradual evaporation of clouds works to the same effect — bringing a larger whole into existence. Each engraving contains an unknown: a dark piece of puzzle that the next print will solve. Each print simultaneously contains a secret and reveals a secret. The same of Porter’s prints, which contain a fragment of a whole, but stand alone regardless.

* The maps remind me a little of the game World of Warcraft, which, yes, I’ve played. Briefly. Characters walk through a murky landscape surrounded by a limited patch of light that reveals shrubbery, enemies, structures, and the like. As you move, the clouds roll back just as in Hall’s engravings. Your range of vision expands depending on what character you’re moving through space — a knight on horseback sees further than a lowly peasant on a berry-picking expedition. So true.

** The full title of Quin’s book is intimidatingly lengthy: An Historical Atlas; In A Series Of Maps Of The World As Known At Different Periods; Constructed Upon An Uniform Scale, And Coloured According To The Political Changes Of Each Period: Accompanied By A Narrative Of The Leading Events Exhibited In The Maps: Forming Together A General View Of Universal History, From The Creation To A.D. 1828.