Friday, June 1, 2007

When is time?

An artist with whom I roomed many years ago once said, “You really don’t understand time and space at all, do you?”

I said, ‘Well, if you’re going to explain, just start with time. I don’t think my brain can take in both at once.”

She looked at me in bafflement for a minute. Then she said, “Okay. Time. When is it?”

“What? You mean, it’s 2:30?”

“No! I mean when is the time, when is the time?”

“What?”

“It’s NOW, that’s when it is. It’s always now. It’s never then, it’s never future time either. We’re trapped in a tiny sliver in between then and time-to-come. We have no influence over either the past or the future, only the present.”

“I see why we can’t influence the past, but of course we can influence the future. That’s called planning.”

“ No, the future…you can never go there and change it. All you can do is right now, something you guess might change the future. But you might guess wrong. Don’t you see? Time is a tiny, cramped spot, not the huge expanse we like to think about. Right now. If you don’t sense your surroundings right now, if you don’t observe, then you have wasted that part of life.” She looked at me quizzically.

I thought she was talking philosophy, a subject that can give me a strong headache. But I had a glimmering of the idea she wanted me to get. “It’s only now, but I still say the best use of now is to plan how to influence the future.”

“So that’s why you smoke?” I did at that time, luckily I’ve had the sense to stop.

“No, that’s why I can do experiments. The smoking is stupid.”

“Stupid now and stupid later. But the best use of now is to perceive NOW, not waste all your time planning for the future. We humans aren’t that good at planning anyway, and if you’re doing that, you’ll be missing what you could take in from your environment, human and otherwise.”

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Location, Location, Location

I used to think that location was not important, that human encounters and interactions were the interesting part and they could happen anywhere. When I was reading, I even used to skip past the description at times. But then I moved to California. It’s different here. From back East, we used to say California was ‘far out.’ It’s not the same, that’s clear, although I’m not sure it’s really far out. But there’s a flavor of difference. Where we are matters.

Reading Joan Didion’s description of evil greenery growing in the Inland Empire where I live, or her description of the isolation and impersonality of driving on the freeways, I find the mood she creates resonates with the characters and the story. Moving the action to New York would not fit. I’ve been reading Willa Cather’s fictionalized life of Bishop Lamy recently, and New Mexico is a character in the story without a doubt. It interests me that the location can determine a lot of the shape of a story. Character and plot can arise from it, rather than location serving as Windows Wallpaper for a story that could take place anywhere.

What of the universality of human conditions? It’s true, but part of it is that we’re made to be tuned to our environments. So, West Coast Writers must be different in their assumptions. Maybe it’s being laid back, not wanting to argue with that East Coast guy who’s blowing his horn or butting in. We’ll all get there in the end, right? Or maybe it’s the assumption that we can jump in our cars (on our horses) and go anywhere. Or that nothing ever closes, no blue laws exist. Or the closeness of natural places, the ocean, the mountains. Or the hokey way the rivers have been made into Disneyland concrete channels painted with glorious and horrible graffiti. Lots of things are incorporated into our unconscious assumptions about daily life.

So, I think there’s a West Coast viewpoint that writers have, maybe not all writers, but a lot of writers who are out on this edge of the country. And reciprocally, I think people who write in other parts of the country or world have an intrinsic viewpoint too. Do you agree? Let me know what you think.