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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

The Flight of Time*

"Time Flies"
A Custom Wood Carving from

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, April 4, 2010
as "Perception Governs View of Time"

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey
Written content only

A couple of years ago, I penned a sentence in another essay about the passage of time:

“As children, we rush along, impatient to grow up. We them spend our adulthood sadly wondering why we didn’t take our time.”  That sentence has been bouncing around inside my brain since, teasing and tormenting me in the way that elusive ideas sometimes do.

We humans have an uncertain relationship with the passage of time. Scientifically speaking, time is always the same. Whether seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, or decades, they all pass at the same rate. The last five minutes of a timed test, or five minutes of a root canal is the same five minutes. What changes is our perception of that time.

It’s a universal part of the human experience that when times are good, the minutes tick by like fenceposts alongside a speeding car. In bad times, those same minutes seem to crawl by at a speed that would make a glacier look like Jamaican Gold Medalist Usain Bolt. Also, as we grow older, the passage of days seems to accelerate. But science aside, perception is what governs our view of time.

My wife and I spent a week in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, along with one of our daughters and her husband. It was a busy time. We golfed, shopped, toured, snorkeled, and boated our way through those seven days, spending very little time actually enjoying what I call “perfect indolence.” Among the blizzard of memories of flying golf balls, endless shops and cantinas, and Mayan ruins, the clearest recollection was, for me, the 2 or 3 hours I spent just floating in the pool under the hot Caribbean sun. As a writer, I have a very busy brain. It’s always engaged in dreaming up new ideas, crafting new essays, or editing what I’ve already penned. This activity is both exhilarating and exasperating, but tremendously fulfilling. But every brain needs down time, when a person can lie still for a time, the head completely empty and idle. Some folks don’t seem to understand that concept. Their idea of a vacation is to squeeze as much activity into that period of time as they possibly can. Or, as I overheard one vacationer grump, “We paid good money for this vacation, and we’re not going to waste a minute of it lying around in the pool.”

I can understand that. In 2002, my motorcycle and I took off for nine glorious days in the American southwest. Each day consisted of endless hours on the road, with occasional stops to marvel at nature at its grandest. Those long days recalled the family trips of my youth the goals of which were governed not by a destination, but by the experience of the trip itself. In both cases, the days flew by. And at the end of both trips, I was left with the distinct feeling that those days hadn’t really been 24 hours long; that somehow, I had been cheated by the clock. And yet, I remember the end of my 6th grade year. The final three days, the teachers had pretty much given up trying to impart any more knowledge to their impatient and increasingly unruly students. So, after an obligatory hour of attempted academics, we were turned loose onto the playground for the rest of the day. For a while, it was fun. But, by the afternoon of the second day, I was beginning to feel some boredom. And the clock ground to a halt. That last day in particular, as I recall it lasted at least 18 hours, rather than the six-and-a-half that it actually was. At one point, I even asked the teacher if I could go inside for awhile.

I remember a similar situation in the Navy. We were in the Indian Ocean, off Australia when I received the Red Cross message that my mother, who was suffering from terminal cancer, was near death. My ship sent me over to the aircraft carrier USS Ranger, where I was supposed to catch a flight to shore. But, because of the large number of emergency leave cases, Ranger’s command made the decision to keep us aboard until the ship made port in Perth, two days later. For a sailor on a deployed ship, there’s very little downtime. Most workdays last between 14 and 18 hours, longer for watchstanders. When you’re not on watch, you’re working, so the days pass relatively quickly. However, being temporarily assigned, I had no work to do; nothing to pass the hours. I thought those two days would never end.

A clock, despite how we might perceive it, lives in its own world. It ticks relentlessly, inexorably along, taking no notice of the human events swirling around it. In and of itself, it has no intrinsic value. But for us, time can be either be an asset or a liability depending solely on what we choose to do with it.

And in the end, the only real way to determine the value of time past is not in the number of a clock’s revolutions, but in the accumulation of regrets.
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