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Published: 2005/08/09
by Jesse Jarnow

Featured Column:Time Passes Slowly

I have a distinct memory of once asking my friend Dave why people had to die. We were both seven, I think. I don't remember why I thought Dave would have the answer. But he did have one.

"Well," he offered, "if people didn't die, there wouldn't be room for everybody." Being seven, I suppose I could've made a fine argument for rockets and moon colonies and such, but the simplicity of his response surprised me. Everything was finite, I understood.

I imagined my town crowded with thousands of people who'd lived on that land. Would they be upset that we lived in their house? I wondered.

I couldn't fathom them all. My memory, I knew then, was as finite as space on the planet, as finite as life. Trippy, but so was most of childhood. It was also, I knew, a problem I wouldn't have to worry about for some time. My memory was far from full, my experience far from long.

At 26, though, I can see Dave was exactly right: my own past is vastly overpopulated, and my brain must regularly undergo a cropping process, often without my consent. Away go birthdays, names of people I had seemingly meaningful conversations with, news events. Staying, though, are things I wouldn't imagine: the phone number of my childhood friend Soc (828-8318), and dozens of dates that constitute a history of what my brain considers important.

What it considers important is — for most people in the world — completely irrelevant. This summer, for example, is the 40th anniversary of Bob Dylan going electric (not to mention the Acid Tests and the founding of the Grateful Dead), the 10th anniversary of Jerry Garcia's death.

Today is August 9th, the aforementioned anniversary of Garcia’s death. It is also the anniversary of two other events: the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 and Netscape’s public offering, which — soon — began the cyberboom, the final wave of peacetime prosperity before September 11th returned the United States to war. When I woke this morning, I’d remembered Garcia, but not Nagasaki (which I did remember was in August of 1945) or the sale of Netscape (which I knew was sometime in the mid-‘90s). But all struck chords.

Why do we feel the need to ruminate? Clearly, we humans value the past. Why else number the years? These dates are plot points on grand narratives, some shared by many, some shared by few. Sometimes, the numbers disappear, or become important parts of stories previously unconsidered.

In 1893, prominent Chicago men staged a World's Fair — the Columbian Exposition — in honor of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus on American shores. (They were a little slow in getting their act together, and were a year off, but who's counting?) A century later, it was impossible to imagine the United States coming together for such a cause, even if it did mark a half-millennium. Instead, we got a shitty Grd Depardieu movie — a bum, if appropriate, deal given what post-modernism did to Columbus.

It's not as if Columbus — nor the silly rhymes about him invented by elementary school teachers — will be forgotten. He has simply moved to a different place in our story of the past, with a different importance. But there's not room for everything. Who knows what will happen to the dates we consider significant? Of the above, only the memory of Nagasaki will likely survive in common memory through the next century.

Dave was right. It's all finite, but infinitely finite, and that's where the scary part is: by picking things to remember, you must also pick things to forget, things you will never remember again. We mark the past to give shape to the big endless endless (as a fella once said) of time and space, constellations that might point us to shore, or at least give us some idea about the way time may pass in the future.

This is why, I think, I am sitting in Brooklyn half-remembering a conversation I had in the front yard of my house, by the bush nearest the O'Daly's driveway, when I was small. It was when I knew that one should make maps.

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