Time Is Slowing Down

A few months after we got our first microwave, I realized that something had happened to me. The microwave was counting down three minutes, the time it took to boil a cup of water for tea. As I watched the digital display measure the seconds, I was impatiently casting about for something to occupy me, but there was nothing to do. The paper hadn’t arrived yet, the dishes were all done, and it was too early to call anyone.

When did seconds become so slow? When I was a child, my father taught me to count seconds: one-one thousand, two-one thousand… Back then, we had to slow seconds down. We boiled water on a stove, in a kettle that whistled when the water came to a boil. That whistle always seemed to interrupt me just when I was getting absorbed in something. Time zipped by.

Microwave ovens have slowed down time.

I am not making this up. Scientists have observed the same thing, though they have not yet made the connection to appliances. They postulate (a word that roughly means ‘guess’ if you’re a scientist) that it has to do with string theory, accelerating expansion, and something called dark energy. (Dark energy is also why small children keep getting out of bed at night. Parents have no dark energy; children have a lot.)

I argue that it was History that has caused the wheels of time to slow – History class, I mean. When I was taking Modern European History, we learned that the Industrial Revolution took place between 1760 and 1840. In Mr. Sizemore’s class, it took twice that long. But I’m sure that was mostly because the class was after lunch, when time always moves more slowly.

Generally speaking, time moves more quickly for children than for adults (probably a side-effect of all that dark energy). After Thanksgiving, they perceive it slowing, even as it speeds up for adults. Whatever they plan to do just barely gets done by December 24. This would seem to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity. In January time slows again, especially for those starting a diet.

Digital clocks and speedy appliances are partly to blame for the instability of time. Those inventions have changed life a lot, and mostly for the better. Who really cares if children don’t know how to read an analog clock? It’s like Roman numerals – which some analog clocks still use – not really necessary for counting or telling time. And who wants to wash and dry dishes by hand, or spend hours doing laundry when you can impatiently wait for an appliance to do it for you? I will keep my appliances, even if they one day cause the universe to grind to a halt.

If I were to postulate (though I’m not a scientist) a reason for the deceleration of time and the end of the universe, it would be three things: television, the internet, and cell phones. These inventions have been blamed for cancer, but as far as I know only a few scientiest have postulated that they will cause Armageddon. There are plenty of us who remember life without the internet and cell phones, and a few who even grew up without television, but on a normal day, we don’t think about how they have altered time.

It’s bizarre, really. Time is slowing down, but we seem to have less and less of it. People complain that there is much less time than there used to be. An analysis of how people spend their time shows just the opposite – there is more time than there was a generation ago. So why aren’t we all writing novels, learning a foreign language, curing diseases, training for a triathlon?

It’s obvious: we’re all flipping channels, surfing the internet, texting our friends, telling them, nmh, hbu?

When I started writing, doing research took time. It involved going to a building – the library. Sometimes I had to talk to an actual person, a librarian, and persuade him/her to have a book sent over on Interlibrary Loan. I still have my Encyclopedia Britannica. When I paid a couple thousand dollars for all those volumes, I was sure I would never need to visit a library again. They even sent me a new volume every year updating the knowledge already bound in those pages. I wonder how often online encyclopedias update. Look it up — it’ll only take a minute.

I have an Oxford English Dictionary – the unabridged one. It’s the version you need a huge magnifying glass to read. My bookshelf is full of references – Roget’s Thesaurus (not the alphabetical one), Bartlett’s Quotations, Funk and Wagnall’s, Fowler’s Modern Usage, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Hammond’s World Atlas, and many others. Now, I don’t even have to go upstairs and take them off the shelf to look something up – they’re all online. Research takes less time now; yet, students complain about having to look up and read information, even when it appears after a few clicks. Information you don’t have to work for is far less interesting than a book that takes weeks to arrive.

There are a lot of other things I can do now without budging from the couch: I can tell what the temperature is outside (I used to open the door to do that), I can find out what I’m not watching on television, download books, see how level my coffee table is, do my Christmas shopping, and look at a satellite view of the house where I grew up. All this information comes to my on my phone. It wasn’t so long ago that you could make the excuse, “I couldn’t call – I was stuck in traffic.” That time stuck in traffic was golden; I could spend it thinking about anything or nothing. I didn’t have to get on the phone and start getting stuff done.

Lawyers make money off of time. When I worked for a law firm, I had to bill my time in 15-minute increments, which meant that I had to write down everything I did during a day and how long it took. Good days were those where I had a lot to keep me busy; having nothing to do was deadly slow.

If I write down everything I do in a day at home, I can immediately see why I don’t get things done. There are too many distractions eating up my minutes. I watch little television, but I do spend time reading Wikipedia, following one link after another, fascinated by all the information there. I don’t spend time in chat rooms or emailing people, or texting them. Nor do I play video games.

But I do spend hours staring at my macbook, twiddling around the words I’ve written. You can’t do that on a typewriter, which requires correction tape for twiddling. It can take me an hour to write a paragraph when I get into this mode. When I finally look at the clock, I’m amazed at how the minutes have flown by.

I used to feel guilty about the number of hours I spend writing stuff that doesn’t get published, but now that I realize what’s happening to the universe, I’m going to take advantage of slow time. While the microwave boils water for my tea, I will finish my novel – even if I have to write it on my phone.

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