26 February 2010

‘Time’ now is different than ‘time’ then – isn’t it?

Part of growing up is realizing that some things get better with time (“Caddyshack”) and some things get worse (“Porky’s”). But lately, the nature of time itself seems to be changing for me.

I remember very distinctly how slow the days once passed. The summers of 1993 and 1994 were, according to me at least, the slowest times ever recorded in the history of the planet. Minutes would languidly crawl by under the glare of a hot July sun, trailed by the still-distant vulture of an approaching school year. It was this same kind of boredom that I’m convinced wiped out the dinosaurs.

I pictured myself aging like Rip van Winkle – spending each passing day waiting for something, anything, to happen. The coming school year was a welcome break, if not exactly a blessed release.

Nearly 20 years later, I find that entire years have gone by before I’ve realized it (2009? Where are you?). I’m still trying to figure out how my wife and I can sit down on Monday nights (if there are no meetings for me to attend), turn to each other and say, “Didn’t we just watch ‘Big Bang Theory’ yesterday?" No. Sadly, it was a week ago – when we asked ourselves the exact same question.

So why is it that time itself seems to pass faster as we age? A recent story on National Public Radio asked the same question. Scientists have many theories on the subject, including one focusing on how the brain records experiences. Part of this is common sense – for example, you wouldn’t remember driving somewhere the fourth or fifth time as much as you would the first. It is simply routine by that point.

“The brain records new experiences – especially novel and exciting experiences – differently,” the article (available NPR.org) states. “This is even measurable. [Neuroscientist David Eagleman’s] lab has found that brains use more energy to represent a memory when the memory is novel. So, first memories are dense. The routines of later life are sketchy. The past wasn’t really slower than the present. It just feels that way.”

It sure does. There is much in an adult life that is routine and unmemorable: getting dressed in the morning, driving the same routes to work day in and day out, having the same types of lunches in the same boring break room, picking up children at daycare, making dinner and then collapsing into a heap on the couch wondering where the day went. Yes, that sounds about right.

I’ve had a few friends tell me they have only recently started to notice that something they considered "relatively recent" (like Kurt Cobain being alive) turned out to have happened 14 or 17 years ago. A friend and I were talking about this concept not long ago.

“It sucks getting old, and I feel like I’m too young to be saying that,” he said.

“Be patient,” I replied. “It’s our first time.”

Life, I’m told, moves in stages. Growing older is just a means to that end. I take comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in feeling that the very measurement of life itself seems to be moving at a faster pace.

Maybe too much time seems to have passed because I am at another formative point in life where the otherwise-routine nature of existence is starting to change through new and different experiences (hearing Evelyn say “Daddy,” trying new things like volunteering with the Commemorative Air Force) thus creating “denser” memories and an impression of life lived at a slower pace.

Maybe it’s an elegant way to remind me that I need to stop and smell the roses.

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