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The Things We Measure (and the things we can't)


I am reading Thomas Mann’s classic The Magic Mountain. I’m on page 550 or so, and I am finding it eerily relevant to life in the days of Covid-19.

The setting is a sanitorium high in the Swiss Alps. The inmates are being treated for an unnamed lung disease. They carry their own personal thermometers in little velvet pouches and affectionately refer to them as “the silent sisters.” They take their temperatures multiple times a day and fastidiously chart the results.

What they do not measure is time.

The inmates are at various stages of living – and dying. It is considered to be in extremely poor taste to ask questions like, “How long have you been here?” or “How long do you think you will stay?” If one were to pose the question, one would likely be met with a glazed-over stare, followed by a quick change of subject.

Time, the narrator tells us, in a story, is measured two ways. There is actual time, like beats in a measure of music: seconds, minutes, hours, days. And then there is the time of content, which is so relative as to be almost imaginary.

Like the time in dreams, it can compress or expand at will.

We all understand this. How often have we hit snooze on the alarm clock, and in the ten minutes before it rings again, we dream a story that covers hours, days, or even years?

Eternity is not the endless duration of time, Mann suggests. Rather, it is the state in which time has no measure at all.

The parallels to 2020 are obvious: We all measure our temperatures daily, and we have all lost track of time.

The first major shift in my sense of time happened back in March when time began to be measured in rolls of toilet paper.

“What is today’s date?” you might have asked me.

“It is the 8th day before we run out of toilet paper if the daily average holds steady,” I might have replied.

I’m glad those days, at least, have been relegated firmly to the past.

Right now, I’m not sure if time is passing quickly or slowly. I’m disoriented.

In some ways, time seems frozen in a perpetual now. I think this is because it is hard to think in linear terms when there is no “end in sight” to this pandemic that has so altered our lives. We don’t know what we are waiting for. We don’t know how much of the “now” is going to be confined to this weird present and how much is going to seep into the future and change our way of being. We all know nothing will ever be exactly the same again. But isn’t that true of every movement forward in time? Nothing is ever exactly the same again.

In other ways, time is speeding by. I look at the paper calendars tacked to the cork board above my desk, and I see it is almost time to submit my midterm grades. How can that be, when we just started the semester a couple weeks ago – or was it eight weeks ago?

In my job, time is measured oddly now, broken into jagged little shards. It used to be standard to measure hours in quarters and halves. If a class began at 1 p.m., chances are it would end at 2:15 or 3:30. Now, classes are divided to reduce class size, and the time is split weirdly between the sessions. For example, I have one class where half the students meet from 9:20 to 10:20, and then the other half meets from 10:50-11:50, to allow time for disinfecting the room in between. It’s no wonder no one can keep their schedules straight! Time wasn’t meant to be measured like this.

On the other hand, I feel less strangled by time than I used to.

There are fewer appointments and fewer places to go. My days have a tide-like rhythm of sameness to them that I like. I find myself describing time in the terms of childhood: work time and play time, mealtimes, TV time, and bedtime.

Time has become a funhouse mirror, shortening and lengthening and generally toying with me, and I let it. What else can I do??

I’ll take the silent sister out of her velvet pouch and measure what I can. As for the rest? Well, I guess I’ll just let it be.

 

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