When I was a child consuming all sorts of classic cultural fare — books, movies, and the like — the moment that scared me the most was not when Alice shrunk in Wonderland or when the Wicked Witch captured Dorothy. It was not when vampires came out of the walls in Are You Afraid of the Dark? or when The Pigeon Lady showed up in Home Alone 2.
It was a particular passage in The Phantom Tollbooth.
At one stop along their journey to rescue Princesses Rhyme and Reason, our protagonists — Milo, Tock, and The Humbug — encounter a faceless man. He at first seems innocuous and politely asks the group to help him with a few small tasks.
Milo is tasked with moving a pile of sand from one spot to another using only tweezers — one grain at a time. Tock must empty a well with an eyedropper. The Humbug must dig a hole through a mountain with a needle.
After awhile, our friends realize that they are trapped, stuck performing the most menial tasks of all time. When Milo eventually calculates that they will waste hundreds of years trying to finish this work for the faceless man (who, it turns out, is named, The Terrible Trivium), they realize they must escape.
Who can say why this narrative of all narratives struck within me such a fierce and hungry fright?
But it has something to do, I’m sure, with the fact that my greatest fear is wasting time: abusing the hours, filling my life with joyless tasks and meaningless fluff and having nothing to show for it at the end.
This fear has stuck with me, has always been with me.
Even as a child I had an epic sense of restlessness: that whatever I was doing was not enough, wherever I was, I should be elsewhere.
After sleepovers, my friends would wake up slowly, take their time at breakfast, then sit open-mouthed in front of cartoons. I couldn’t do that. I wanted to be up and out, heading somewhere new. As a teenager, my friends would spend whole days “laying out” — getting tans and reading magazines, drinking sodas and gossiping. I could handle it for about an hour, tops.
It’s a not an ADD thing. I can spend hours reading or writing or doing some other activity if I believe it is worth the time. Still, it wrangles me. These days, I wake up next to someone who likes to sleep late and move slowly in the morning. I can’t blame him — lots of people do. But I hate sleeping. It’s my least favorite activity because it seems like such a time-waster.
Every morning, I am propelled out of bed, feeling the need to do something, anything. I don’t know how to describe the dissatisfaction that thrums through me when I “lounge around.” It is round and hollow and ringing, like a gong being struck repeatedly and deep within, its ripples running through me, pushing my nerves to movement.
But where exactly do I think I’m going? What exactly am I doing with my time that is so much better? It’s not like I’m an ER doctor performing life-saving surgeries or a volunteer feeding the homeless.
I spend good portions of my day alone with my computer, trying to create imaginary stories that a few other people might relate to. I spend a lot of time running, trying to mold my body into a harder, thinner shape. Are these things so much more worthy than watching TV or tanning?
Once, on a trip to Joshua Tree with my friend Liz, the two of us sat on a rock sunning ourselves and smoking — two of her favorite activities — and I read aloud to her from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
It was early morning, and we watched dozens of rock climbers, their wiry bodies clasping ropes and pulleys and clamps, displaying their stickered helmets and sleek pants and special shoes purchased based upon online reviews and store recommendations. We watched them strategize and prepare, then finally scale the red rock — finding foot- and hand-holds, scrambling all the way to the top — only then to repel back down to the bottom and start all over, scaling the same rock on a different path.
Liz was baffled. “Why do they spend their time doing this?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Why do you spend your time smoking and laying in the sun? Why do I spend my time reading the words of a man who died over 100 years ago?”
“’Cause it’s the best,” she said.
“To each his own,” I said. “We’re all just filling the time before we die.”
Liz laughed at this. Others have not found this statement so funny when I repeat it, espousing it as my life philosophy. I guess it is a little morbid. But isn’t it true? You can fill the time before you die with whatever you like.
It’s amazing how long it takes us — we obedient little human beings, good members of society — to figure this out. We are scared of limitations, frightened of the faceless people (like the oft-referenced “THEY”) who tell us what is proper, what is right, how to follow the rules to get the desired results.
But more and more people these days seem to be figuring it out, seem to be following not a single prescribed path, but exploring different options.
As my friend Annie once said, “Right now, at this moment in my life, I just want to have as many different experiences as possible.” We were hurtling up the Pacific Coast Highway in my ’97 Volvo, happy to have the day off from our retail and restaurant jobs, and I had asked her if she was still interested in being an actor. (She had moved out to LA under that moniker but never seemed to go on auditions.) She shrugged and said it was just something she had always done and had been good at, but, at this point in her life, the ends wouldn’t satisfy the means, it wasn’t worth it to her to use every moment, every bit of effort in her to pursue that goal. Others could do it if they wanted. Annie had a different desire: to have as many different experiences as possible.
But why is this? Why are we all suddenly so restless, so ready to change and try new things? So frightened of The Terrible Trivium and his endless tasks? So stressed that we and others around us might be wasting time with one slow and singular purpose?
It is because, you see, TIME IS GETTING FASTER.
I mean, I know, scientifically, that the Earth is still spinning and circling the sun at the same rate, and people aren’t suddenly aging like Robin Williams in the movie Jack, but I believe our human perception of time has changed.
Using the philosophy of George Berkeley, time is what it is because we perceive it as such. It is not a thing unto itself. It relies on how we perceive it.
Time has always been such a murky theory anyway. Long ago, we humans decided to mark and measure it in a certain way — having to do with light and dark, rotation and revolution. And then, because of technology, we changed it. When the railroads began to carry us faster from town to town, we switched from local, solar-based time to standard time zoning (not without resistance from people surely labeled philistines). And now time is changing once again. It is a specter at our backs, rushing us along.
I know that this quickening of time is often a symptom of growing older, and some scientists chalk it up to a theory known as “the reminiscence bump.” Many of our brand-new and thus highly-emotional moments — i.e. stealing our first kiss, going off to college, getting married, having a child — happen relatively early in our lives. So later on, life can become routine, without so many emotional bumps along the way. It settles into smooth (and sometimes mundane) sailing, time gliding right by without anything so fresh, new, and vivid to jolt it.
There have been studies (such as Nicholas Carr’s 2008 Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”) that the Internet has changed our brains, robbing us of concentration, rewiring our minds so that we know less about more, we are expansive but not deep. So if our brains are being rewired to collect information differently, perhaps they are also being rewired to perceive time differently.
For example: If I posit that in our new world, a tweet is now equivalent to a news story, and it takes 10 seconds to read a tweet in comparison to the 10 minutes it might take to read a newspaper article, then I could say that a second is now equivalent to a minute. Therefore, something that happened a week, a day, an hour ago may very well be considered ancient history.
There is a joke that frequently makes its rounds among my friends. We’ll accomplish some activity…fill in the blank here, i.e. climbed a mountain, saw a shooting star, accosted a celebrity in a bathroom at a private party. And then just a few minutes after this event has ended, just as we’re falling away from it, sliding back into the stream of normalcy together, one of us will say: “Hey, remember that time we…climbed that mountain, saw that shooting star, accosted that celebrity in that bathroom at that private party?”
And we will laugh. The joke of it being that it just happened — of course we remember. The nostalgic-tinged seriousness of it being that we already miss it. We already want it back.
Never in history have we been so close to the past (we can record everything, every second, commemorate even the mundanest of brunches, read lists about our 90s childhoods — solidified there in black and white and orange slime) and yet have been hurtling away from it into the future so quickly.
Unlike J. Alfred Prufrock, we no longer measure out our lives with coffee spoons, but with something like cocaine spoons — smaller, stronger, faster.
Our generation is experiencing and using time in a whole new way. The Internet has not only changed our perception of time, it has changed our perception of all the things we can do with that time. It has opened up the world to us.
Whereas previous generations were handed a more limited concept of the world (i.e. felt they should stay in their hometowns, get a job, get married), we hop on planes and into cars and go. Anywhere. Everywhere. We take a chance in Los Angeles, follow a pipe dream to New York, teach English in China, join a non-profit in Africa.
Of course there are obstacles to our adventures. Money, mainly. But I’m not just talking about The Privileged Few, The Rich Kids of Instagram. I’m talking about young people with school loans and insurance and rent to pay. But we try to figure out a way to get by without sinking the boat and without taking a permanent 9-5 office job.
It’s not that we want to suck our parents dry of money or shirk the responsibilities of a traditional steady job. It’s that many of us are aspiring artists, creative people, whose nerves shudder and synapses shatter at the sight of spreadsheets, at the soul-sucking possibility of sitting at a desk day after day, year after year while time rushes by us. It’s that we fear that faceless man, The Terrible Trivium. We fear being trapped and tied down, being labeled and branded. We would like to use what little, fleeting, flirting time we have to experiment and create.
Because of this, because we are using our time differently, because we change our minds with the wind and tides, our generation has been framed as spoiled, whiny wimps with terribly low tolerances for bullshit, who give up too easily when times get tough. Who want immediate satisfaction and have never learned the wonders of delayed gratification, who have never put in the effort, work, and hours to actually earn the things of which we dream. Whose eyes are larger than our stomachs, whose expectations are far higher than the menial reality. We get it. That’s what you think of us.
And maybe it’s true. But we have to figure it out for ourselves. We have to parse out the bullshit we can handle from the bullshit we cannot. Sure, no one loves their job all the time. Sure, all jobs have bullshit we have to put up with. Sure, we have to have jobs to make money and survive and not go insane with inactivity.
And some of those 9-5 office jobs are great if they satisfy the needs and wants of the people in them: a good environment, the promise of progress and promotion, the security and money to feed the family and fund weekend hobbies.
But if we feel miserable or out of place and have the ability to change, why not do it?
As Annie (“actress” Annie who defies labels and moves cities every couple years, working for circuses and donut shops) said: “They always told us we could be whatever we wanted. But they never told us we could do whatever we wanted.”
“They” who told us to reach for the stars are surprised when we choose food service over a 9-5 with insurance, when we choose freedom over stability.
Liz left her Los Angeles office job, knowing full well she would have to move back to Canada and work as a waitress. Now she deals with the transient whims of customers who say things like: “You sound really educated.”
“I didn’t have the heart to tell him,” she said, recounting the story, “that his burger came with a side of graduate degree.”
But while these jobs may have us dealing with idiots who assume we are idiots and scrounging in our wallets for rent money, these jobs most importantly afford us the free time (the strange off-hours) to work on our art, our lives, ourselves. They give us the opportunity to change quickly with the times, to selfishly cut-and-run if we must, to turn over to a new job or place, to delve into a new experience.
There are others like me, Annie, and Liz — millions more. We were good little children who earned good little grades in school, but once set adrift in the fast-flowing, mind-numbing, sense-dulling preposterous world of adulthood, we resisted, splashing hardily against the current, swimming upstream, climbing onto the banks. And we discovered it was fun. We became addicts of change, and as Tony Kushner once wrote, “adepts of motion, acolytes of the flux.”
Some of us will eventually choose a more “traditional” life — the house and the hometown and the husband — and that is not to be disparaged by the others of us who have chosen differently. But look — even this “tradition” is happening later, happening after the exploration of more choices and changes: We are not settling down until our 30s, not having kids until we are edging closer to 40.
This is because time has sped up. And the world has opened up.
Maybe you think we’re all just wasting our time on Facebook, looking for the right emojis on our phones and marathoning TV shows on Netflix. (But, hey, to each his own. We’re all just filling the time before we die. As long as these activities make us happy and are not just substitute place-fillers for what we actually want to be doing — like painting the next Sistine Chapel or building our own non-profit in Peru — then we’re okay.)
This is our new scale, our new time.
We are the guinea pigs of this new age, like the people who built the railroads and changed the clocks. We are just figuring it out as we go along, trying all the new things spread out in front of us, seeing what works.
We are not all that different from the previous generations.
Every generation has been criticized by the one before, has had to deal with new challenges, and has fought against being hemmed in by the faceless man with harsh demands and ulterior motives.
The Greatest Generation fought the serious threat of Fascists.
The Baby Boomers fought “The Man.”
And We (whoever we are: Gen X, Y, Z, Millennials) are fighting the same sort of hard-edged, solidified lifestyle that those before us battled as well. We don’t want to be told what to do. Not by Fascist Dictators nor by Corrupt Old-Boys-Club Antiquated Government Sharks nor by Anonymous Task-Masters.
Our generation has become accustomed to things changing rapidly, and so we choose to change just as rapidly.
Perhaps this is our ploy to slow down time. To remain young for as long as possible. To keep those emotional bumps coming.
Perhaps this is our ploy to live our lives on our own terms, and not the terms of the faceless man with the piles of stuff. This is our ploy to avoid the tweezers and the grain, to avoid the slow sifting away of all that was once vivid into something bland and mundane. We seek the new, and new ways to live in a new time.
And so like Milo and The Humbug and Tock, the time-keeping dog, we choose to escape The Terrible Trivium and scramble over the mountain, into the unknown and rapidly-approaching future.