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Books Life

Four Thousand Weeks in the Midnight Library

Matt Haig’s novel The Midnight Library asks: What if you could explore every what-if of your life, specifically those that turned into regrets? How many of your other lives would actually turn out better than your real one?

It’s an intriguing philosophical question that quickly turns personal for the book’s protagonist, Nora Seed, who comes to learn that each book in the titular library—rendered as a kind of metaphysical manifestation of purgatory—represents one of the infinite versions of her life.

Adventures in space-time

The idea of exploring what-ifs through magical realism or sci-fi isn’t new. It’s the narrative foundation of some of my favorite films (It’s A Wonderful Life, Back to the Future trilogy) and other intriguing cinematic counterfactuals (The Man in the High Castle, The Last Temptation of Christ, About Time).

But rather than focusing on (as Doc Brown would call it) one specific temporal junction point in the entire space-time continuum—what if George Bailey had never lived, what if Biff stole the Almanac, what if the Nazis won—The Midnight Library extends its ambit to the many sliding-doors moments in a single life.

Nora is given countless opportunities to choose and experience parallel lives where none of her regrets came to pass. “I stayed with that ex-boyfriend” and “I didn’t give up swimming” and “I pursued my dream of becoming a glaciologist” all get a spin. But none of these supposedly ideal realities live up to her expectations.

While she’s able to shorten her list of regrets—an immensely valuable gift in itself—her pursuit of happiness doesn’t solve the deeper existential crisis that plagues all of us at some point: per Mary Oliver, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?

4,000 Weeks

That question infuses another of my recent reads: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman, an approachably philosophical exploration of the wily, incorrigible thing called time and our dysfunctional relationship with it.

I have an extensive list of quotes from the book that make for good ponderin’, but there are three specific ones that would fit right into The Midnight Library. (Synchroncity knows no bounds, temporal or otherwise.)

First, a reality check:

The world has an effectively infinite number of experiences to offer, so getting a handful of them under your belt brings you no closer to a sense of having feasted on life’s possibilities.

Therefore, Burkeman writes, you have to make choices:

Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer, the fact that there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem. Instead, you get to focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you actually do have time for—and the freer you are to choose, in each moment, what counts the most.

And once you do that:

If you can hold your attention, however briefly or occasionally, on the sheer astonishingness of being, and on what a small amount of that being you get—you may experience a palpable shift in how it feels to be here, right now, alive in the flow of time.

That “astonishingness” of being alive in the flow of time doesn’t arrive on command. You have to reorient your mind and your attention to create the conditions that allow for it to reveal itself.

In The Midnight Library, that process looks like an anguished young woman replacing her perceived unworthiness with gratitude for mere existence. (Just like George Bailey.)

In Four Thousand Weeks, that looks like embracing temporal limitations rather than resenting them.

And in my life, that looks like treating the things I love—my wife and son and family and friends and typewriter collection and bike rides and movie nights and library books—as the temporary gifts they are, for however long I live.

Categories
Books Nature

Quotes from the Underland

I’ve only made it through the preface of Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane—an “epic exploration of the Earth’s underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself”—yet rich quotes abound:

“The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful. Shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives). Yield (information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions). Dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets). Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.”

“Force yourself to see more deeply.”

“The underland is vital to the material structures of contemporary existence, as well as our memories, myths and metaphors.”

“Our ‘flat perspectives’ feel increasingly inadequate to the deep worlds we inhabit, and to the deep time legacies we are leaving.”

“‘Deep time’ is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years.”

“When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.”

Categories
Etc. Life

This is my alarm clock

2017-11-04 20.28.10

This is my alarm clock. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

As I was adjusting it last night for daylight saving time, it dawned on me that I’ve been using it for at least fifteen years. Most people probably use their smartphone alarm, but I don’t unless I’m away from home. I don’t even keep it in my room.

This alarm clock is one of many objects I’ve had for a long time and have kept using despite the availability of more modern options. There’s also my orange jacket, acquired at a Salvation Army in Missouri about fifteen years ago as well, which if you’ve seen me in the fall or winter you have most likely seen.

These objects started as mere tools, but they are good and simple enough to go on dependably doing their jobs, so they gradually became the architecture of my life. They are nearly invisible to me, assumed and expected, until a dead battery or a frayed stitch alert me anew to their existence and need for care.

Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up asks us to thank our stuff before we dispose of it. I don’t want to wait until my alarm clock dies or my jacket disintegrates or gets lost to appreciate their small but abiding roles in what is now half of my life.

So thanks, jacket. Thanks, alarm clock. There are many like you, but you two are mine.

Categories
Etc. Science Technology

How to Feel Small

I like things that make me feel small.

Like If The Moon Were Only 1 Pixel, a “tediously accurate scale model of the solar system” that, as you scroll horizontally, reveals the vast span of our neighborhood:
moon

Or Why Time Flies, a philosophical exploration of our fungible awareness of time:
time

Or The Scale of the Universe (my favorite), which, as you zoom in and out, shows the comparative sizes of all creation, from the largest supercluster to the smallest neutrino (notice how everything at some point is the same size):
scale

Or Lightyear.fm, a “journey through space, time & music” that plays songs of the past according to how far their waves have traveled from Earth since they were released:
lightyear

Or The Deep Sea, made by Neal Agarwal, which shows as you scroll down the creatures (and shipwrecks) that live at different depths of the ocean. Spoiler alert: the ocean is very deep.

Categories
America Etc. Technology

The Millennials Will Be All Right

I finally read Joel Stein’s Time magazine piece on the Millennial Generation, called “The Me Me Me Generation.” For the record, unlike some of my Millennial cohorts I hate “selfies” (the term and the thing it describes), I don’t feel entitled to a great job right out of school, and I don’t sleep next to my phone. But I don’t think the article deserved all of the antipathy it received from the blogosphere. I thought it was a fair if slightly fogeyish and surface-level assessment of overall generational characteristics. The problems my generation struggles with — like narcissism and a sense of entitlement — are so noticeable largely because of the times we live in, with everything more public and social technology more widespread. You don’t think the Baby Boomers would have peppered Instagram with pictures from Woodstock? or that Gen-Xers would have had entire Spotify playlists dedicated to their collection of sad and angsty ballads? The manifestations of narcissism by young people today merely belie the human condition that plagues all humankind: We’re selfish creatures, no matter how old we are or how many Twitter followers we have.

The combination of the influence of technology and how we collectively were reared — being told how special we were by over-protective helicopter parents — also contributes to how we are currently growing into adulthood. Generally speaking, we’re able to postpone full emergence into adulthood and still live with our parents because (a) we can and our parents don’t seem to mind (or at least don’t say so), and (b) because the economy sucks and has changed so much that traditional jobs and careers aren’t as feasible anymore. The Boomers were anxious to get out of the house and their parents were eager for them to leave, so naturally the way things are done now clashes with the way of the past. Welcome to The Present Reality.

Having said that, we can’t abdicate responsibility for making choices about our lives. We don’t have to live with our parents or check Facebook ten times a day or start a YouTube channel to get famous, but we do anyway (well, not me, but the collective We certainly do). And that doesn’t just go for Millennials: Facebook usage is declining among younger people because their parents (Boomers! shakes fist) have slowly taken over. Magazine columnists can try to pin the narcissism epidemic on young people all they want, but when I go to restaurants nowadays I see just as many if not more parents on their phones than younger people. We can’t simply blame the times and the technology for our behavior, because we’re human beings with the capacity to choose whether to succumb to societal forces or to instead carve our own path, peer pressure be damned.

I think we’ll be all right. Like generations before us, we have a great opportunity to make things better. That will involve some pushing back against the political and cultural acrimony that has characterized the Boomers’ ascendency and reign, but every generation has had to clean up the messes of its predecessors. We Millennials will inevitably make mistakes, and our kids will have been formed by them in some way, for better or for worse. Let’s just hope it’s for the better.