Friday, May 11, 2007

Time Lines and the Lense of Time (1)

Time is funny stuff. Although I'm getting pretty old, I still remember a day in 1950, just before my fourth birthday, when I had, perhaps, my first life-defining intellectual breakthrough. It had to do with numbers and time.

At that impressionable age, I was teetering on the threshhold of understanding what numbers were for. I had learned to count: won, too, free, for, five - for the fingers on my one hand. Thith, theven, ate, mine, ten - for the other hand. And even though I didn't have enough fingers and toes to make it entirely relevant, I had faithfully practiced and learned the names of all the numbers right up to a hundred. To top that off I had learned the name of some numbers I couldn't even comprehend, like ninteen-fifty. I was a real intellectual giant ... almost as smart as the big kids (five-year-olds) who went to school ... and I wasn't even four, yet.

On the day in question, for reasons I'm sure I couldn't have understood at that age, as we were talking about years and birthdays, my dad (he was always trying to prod us kids into understanding difficult things), said:

«Next week you'll be four years old. This year is ninteen fifty ... in fifty years it will be the year two thousand .... » he followed this enigmatical statement with a poignant pause ... I just knew something significant would be coming after that pause.

My mind boggled and I tried to think about something else. I knew the number-word «thousand». It meant the same as «zillion» - a totally, incomprehensibly, huge number. Two of them was doubly, totally, incomprehensibly, huge. And to make things worse, it was fifty years into the distant future ... again, incomprehensible ... that's even longer than, than, than ... longer than 'til I am as old as Gail! (she was eight)

Four years I could do. I could count them up on the one hand and still have my thumb left over. And that gave the thumb a special meaning ... next year I would be five years old and then I could use it ... by then I would be all grown up and going to school.

But Dad wouldn't let it slide: giving the mentor scalpel in my brain a final twist, he finally said «HOW OLD WILL YOU BE IN FIFTY YEARS?» My nearly four-year-old mind blanched ...

Of course, Dad helped me muddle through to get the right answer: «fitfy, fifty-one, fifty-two, fifty-three, FIFTY-FOUR!» It wasn't hard, and I'm sure I was proud to have figured it out. I was, after all an intellectual giant ....

But for days and weeks afterwards my mind was in a bubbling turmoil. Not because of the 'fifty-plus-four-makes-fifty-four' thing, but because of the fifty-years thing and the year-two-thousand thing, and the age issue. It was gradually sinking in that Dad really believed that I, a little kid, someday in the future might really be fifty years old, or even worse fifty-four. And Dad knew everything there was to know about everything.

When you're little, you have a nice, neat age that you can count on one hand, or maybe - as in the case of my very old and very grown up sister – on two hands, but age was fathomable, countable, demonstratable. But FIFTY, it could just as well be a zillion years old ... do people really live that long?

During the next few days I persued the issues as best I could ... first, I asked Dad and Mom how old they were: thirty-five and thirty-six, they told me. Wow! that was old! But even then, not as o-o-o-old as fifty. In the next phase, I asked them how old Gramma and Grampa were - they were after all the oldest people I knew of. «Fifty-four and fifty-six», came the answer.

I was devastated.

What they were telling me was that I, a totally innocent kid, WOULD ONE DAY BE AS OLD AS GRAMMA AND GRAMPA. And when that came to pass ... it would be in the year TWO THOUSAND! For days and weeks and months I was in a deep intellectual crisis over this revellation. Age meant something different now, and year meant something different, and even my five fingers meant something different. The thumb i had been saving til next year was somehow diminished, too. The very firmament of my four-year-old intellectual world was crumbling under my feet.

Well ... time passed, as it always does, and long before I arrived at the mature age of five the crisis had passed.

But every instant of every day between that day in 1950 and the millenium, I knew for a fact that I would be fifty-four in the year 2000.

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