Unstuck in time

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This week I have been trying to plan a number of international calls for my boss. I have a useful device on my computer where I can easily compare the times of our office with those he regularly connects with around the world. So usually this is pretty straight forward, except that I have been trying to coordinate calls that will happen after the clocks have changed in Geneva. In some countries clocks don’t change at all and in others they don’t change when ours do. And for some reason trying to figure this out makes my brain bleed.
I can check a hundred times that in a particular week Geneva will be an additional hour ahead of New York but when I look at the time scroller I can’t compute the adding on of that extra hour and have to start again. It’s like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes of its face and I can’t get it to slow down enough for me to figure it out.
P1000461The concept of time is a strange thing and I’m not 100% sure that I believe in it as I am supposed to. A month or two back we read Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ for book club. The book is told in a non linear fashion and centres around the character of Billy Pilgrim who becomes ‘unstuck in time’.
I read the book and listened to the club debate whether it should be classified as science fiction, whether Billy should be considered to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or whether the unsticking in time is simply an old man reminiscing. Being the somewhat simple person that I am I read it and just accepted the time travel as a perfectly normal aspect of the narrative.
To be honest it kind of made sense. I think I know that time moves in a regimented, chronological, one-minute-follows-another-minute sort of way, but that’s not how we experience it. So I wonder if the concept of time that I think I know is just one version of the reality of this?
I’ve been experiencing déjà vu quite a lot recently, that sense of half-remembered names and faces that I’ve already encountered some time ago. I looked online and found a lot of simple(ish) scientific explanations for déjà vu. But what if the explanation is even simpler, a moment or experience feels familiar because you actually have seen or experienced it before at another time?
Perhaps time is much more like a wheel within a wheel than the straight line we think, and every so often whilst spinning around one wheel we might get teeny glimpses of something that’s on another wheel we aren’t supposed to be circling yet? Like the fleeting moment of identifying a face in the crowd when on a ride at a fairground before the image is snatched away.
When they first turned on the large hadron collider at CERN, which I visited last weekend, there were fears that it would create a black hole and destroy life as we know it. The scientists involved said that was ridiculous and wouldn’t happen but when asked what would be the outcome of their work they didn’t, and still really don’t, know what the effects might be. Nerds (myself included) across the world are mostly keeping our fingers crossed for the coolest possible scientific outcome, that is to say time travel.
LHCbI like time travel stories and the fiancé and I have just decided to start watching all the rebooted Doctor Who (from 2005) from episode one, series one. I love the show but it always leaves me with a lot of questions.
Like how is anything ever a surprise for the Doctor? For example when he meets a potential new companion, how does he not instantly recognize them from future memories? When he’s in a sticky situation why can he never remember how to get out of it? And also, why are his companions always pretty young women? My constant questions become words that jangle in my head and are probably evidence of my tendency to over-think things rather than just go with the flow but the whole concept of time travel is just a circle in a spiral that keeps on spinning!
The idea of being able to visit different ages and different periods in history is definitely appealing. I’m pretty sure I’d make an excellent Tudor and would obviously love to see if hover cars ever do become the reality futuristic films promise.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut if you had the ability to time travel would you be able to avoid the temptation to visit your own history? If you could change the things you are not proud of or glimpse into the future to see what happens, would you? And if you could time travel and could make the odd adjustment here and there would this change who you are? If you knew your future would you experience your life differently?
And if time isn’t altered so easily and isn’t so much a line as a circle would we, like Billy Pilgrim, live our lives on a constant loop, that never really ends or begins but rather lurches from one key moment to another? Would life become a trap, a nightmarish existence of endlessly reliving every moment?
Would I at least be able to figure out what time zones Geneva and connecting cities are in, relying on future successes, or would I have to experience the pain of figuring this out for an eternity?
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The virtual unreality?

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“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein.

A friend referred me to an article about a woman who spent three months convincing her friends and family that she was backpacking around Asia, when in fact she never actually left her apartment. She said that “My goal was to prove how common and easy it is to distort reality. I did this to show people that we filter and manipulate what we show on social media.”

What’s interesting about the story is not so much the deception of it all but the lack of shock that she could actually pull something like that off. How she did it seems pretty straightforward, why is perhaps another matter.

We all choose to present ourselves in a certain way and make umpteen decisions on how we do this on a daily basis without even thinking about it. For example, we choose what clothes we want to wear when we meet certain people, we retell an event a bit more vividly than we actually remember it or we engage in certain conversations to make a better connection with others. It’s not that we are necessarily misrepresenting ourselves so much as presenting one version of the reality that is us to an audience.

In the same way we might answer ‘I’m fine’ to the question ‘how are you?’ or smile for a photograph we know is being taken even when having a truly awful day. At these times we are more consciously presenting a slightly less genuine version of ourselves. So the idea that we twist the perception of the reality we present to others isn’t new. What is new is how much easier it is to do this on a much larger scale with the multitude of social media options available to us.

If you only took everyone at face value of their facebook pages you’d be led to believe that everyone is constantly experiencing a wealth of fantastic things from amazing parties to random items in supermarkets to adorable pet moments to amazing adventures.

What you don’t always get is that contrary to the smiling party pictures the happy-go-lucky attendee pictured were wishing she’d stayed at home to catch up on the latest Doctor Who. That the fascinatingly shaped carrot amongst the vegetables was the amusing perk of a long and tiring day and an hour trudging around the shops looking, and unable to find, the right kind of flour. That two seconds after the lovely cat photo was posted the owner then spent 40 minutes chasing said cat round the house to get it to give up the half dead mouse it had just brought in. That the amazing adventure mentioned is contrary to all those less than amazing non-adventures, that haven’t been shared as status posts, sat at home in front of the tv.

Not that I meant to say every happy image presented is a lie and secretly we all lead very miserable lives with no real joy to be found anywhere, my point is more that the moments we choose to share have been selected by us to present a certain impression. Not necessarily a happy impression, there’s many a ‘worst day ever’ tweet, but a somewhat distorted image of our reality.

Although most of us don’t go as far as faking an epic adventure abroad over a period of several months. Or do they…? Perhaps I never left London at all and am just hiding out in my Greenwich flat taking pictures of cows pretending they are special Swiss cows and photoshopping myself into pictures with mountains in the background hoping no-one has the geographical ability to identify the mountains pictured as Himalayas rather than Swiss Alps?

Swiss cows or just cows?

Swiss cows or just cows?

If we all know that social media is to be taken with a pinch of salt then it doesn’t really matter if we want to use it as an opportunity to present the kind of person we want everyone to think we are. If we accept that online updates are more qualified than absolute then there’s no real risk provided we make the time to scratch beneath the surface for those we really want to know. The problem is when we get lazy and become content with clicking a like button here and retweeting there without making a real effort to engage with those we care about.

I was talking to my other half the other night about the perils of social media. My argument was that as technology gets ever cleverer and makes our lives easier by doing so much for us including human interaction it may start taking away the humanity from us; in that the easier it becomes to communicate online the harder it is to do so off-line. He was proving my point somewhat, by flicking through various web pages on his tablet whilst trying to dispute this, but argued that social media and online communications were our reality now.

He gave several examples of real friendships he’d forged and maintained in the virtual universe that he was unlikely to have made otherwise, He also pointed out that when living away from many friends and family it’s pretty great that you can still feel connected to them and know what’s going on in people’s lives without having to always try and find time for a lengthy phone call. He also mentioned that without the wonders of modern day technology my blog wouldn’t exist.

I grudgingly had to admit he may have a point. Certainly, without the cyber-sphere my blog would be nothing more than an unread journal or an annoying round robin novel issued once a year at Christmas. So I guess the way we communicate and present ourselves online is a reality. Or at least a very persistent illusion.

The age-old question

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I recently read an interesting post ‘In Defence of Aging’, which has got me thinking about that age-old question, which is really two questions: 1) Am I getting old? And 2) Do I care?

What is old?

Age is a funny thing and the perception of old-age is a fairly fluid construct, in that the closer you get to it the further it moves away.

When I was five and the 1990 World Cup was taking place I remember my dad telling me that the next World Cup would be in four years time. To my five-year old brain four years might as well be the end of the world. And from a five-year old’s perspective, when one year is a fifth of your life, then four years is a lifetime.

If we compare that to now, when the 2014 World Cup finished with yet another disappointment for England (and to be fair every other team that wasn’t Germany), my perception is slightly different. It’s only another four years to the next World Cup, barely a wait at all and only a fraction of the life I’ve already lived.

At the age of 10, 50 sounds ancient. At 20 the gap between youth and old age both narrows and widens. 30 sounds terrifyingly old but at the same time 60, which used to turn people into Old Age Pensioners, doesn’t seem nearly so old now that we’ve seen parents and friends surpass that particularly year without curling up into a useless mass of pointless existence.

My grandma is 93 but she has only just accepted that she might be old and only a few months ago she threatened to kick anyone that dared to suggest she seemed to be doing very well for her age. ‘What do they mean,’ she’d indignantly ask ‘at my age?’ 93 does seem pretty old but perhaps when, if, I’m in my 80s I’ll probably be thinking ‘90 isn’t old but 100+, now that is old’.

Am I getting old?

So next year I’ll be 30 and with this upcoming change of decade I’m not entirely sure whether I ought to be feeling:

  • denial (‘no, I’m not 30, I’m 29 (again)’)
  • anxiety (‘I’m going to be so old I wont be able to enjoy childish things like going to the zoo anymore unless I actually have children or borrow someone else’s’)
  • disappointment (‘I thought I’d have done more with my life by now’*)
  • relief (‘thank god, I’m no longer in my twenties, I pity those young’uns searching for jobs, trying to save up for a house’)
  • anything in particular at all (‘maybe I wont transform into a different person with a whole new perspective in life’).

I think feeling old is something we put upon ourselves. Last year, when I was in Cambodia doing an internship I was conscious of the fact that the other interns were all younger than me but it really didn’t matter. My being a few years older didn’t mean we had nothing in common and couldn’t relate. In fact, one of the people I was closest too was one of the youngest of the group but we connected as people not as age-brackets and no segregation of years (or geography for that matter) affects our continuing friendship.

Currently, I don’t feel old but I don’t feel particularly young either and actually that’s okay. I’m a lot more confident now than I was in my early 20s and care a lot less about what other’s think so I don’t really want to go back to that more anxious, albeit slightly younger, version of me.

Do I care?

Laughter linesHere is a picture of me taken up a tree during the rope course adventure I tried recently and at first glance, I thought that’s a nice picture (judgement criteria being: I don’t look fat or overly shiny). On closer inspection I note the laughter lines around my hair and a few grey hairs wisping around my head. Does this proof of aging make it less of a nice picture? Again, it depends on your perspective.

What I liked in the defence of aging post, referred to above, was the idea that the lines on our faces don’t so much add character as show our character. I love that the lines around our eyes are called laughter lines because that’s such a friendly non-threatening concept. Yes, I have quite a lot of laughter lines but I’ve spent a lot of my life laughing and as they show up most when I’m grinning away is it such a big deal for other people to see them? Not really. Yes, I have grey hairs now and every so often I will dye these, but does existence of these prove I’m past my sell-by-date?

We recently had vast amounts of ‘expired’ chocolate donated to our office. It still tastes great, and even the resident Belgian (by birth a chocolate connoisseur) agrees. So I might be old in the eyes of some but that doesn’t mean I’m actually past-it.

I was filling in a form at work recently with a colleague who misheard when I gave my date of birth and wrote 1995 rather than 1985. I laughed and expressed thanks for making me 10 years younger and then I instantly took that back because I realized I don’t actually want to be 19 any more. On the whole I’m reasonably happy with how I lived the last 10 years and the 19 before that, for that matter. I don’t want to be 19 again and I don’t really want to look 19 again.

There’s a poem I like, written by someone who set himself the challenge of writing a poem a day, on the topic ‘If I could do it all over.’ The subject of the poem reflects on the ups and downs of his life and decides that if he had the chance to live his life again he wouldn’t change a thing because then he wouldn’t be the person he is today. If I were offered the chance to relive my life and return to my ‘youth’ I think I’d rather stick where I am as I am grey hairs and all!

I’m not saying I’ll happily accept the continued greying of my hair and wrinkling of my skin but I am going to try not to worry about it. It’s part of who I am, evidence of who I’ve been and evolution of the person I will become. And aging is definitely better than the alternative.

Getting older is inevitable but if getting old is a state of mind and my mind is willing to show flexibility in this area then I don’t seen any reason to have to feel old any time soon or, actually, ever.


* Granted the fear I haven’t done enough with my life is going to affect me, but that’s because this is something I’m already worried about, have been worried about since leaving University and will probably continue to worry about in the future. That’s pretty much what this whole blog is about.

 

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

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The saying goes: ‘absence makes the heart grows fonder’ but this is only true up to a point. Certainly, absence makes you keenly aware of being apart from those you are fond of, and a return after a relatively short period away makes you appreciate those you have missed all the more intently. Although more often than not this heightened sense of appreciation is only of a limited duration.
However absence over a longer period of time, say for those that up sticks and move away from the job/area/country of those they care for can have a different effect entirely. In time fondness alone can fade away into an affectionate memory of a part of your life that no longer exists.
Just as some friendships will stand the test of time, and you will meet people you know will be there for you no matter how much of a plonker you are at times, some friendships won’t last and absence won’t do these any favours. There is nothing wrong with this. I believe that it’s perfectly natural that you may have bonds with certain people only at certain periods of your life. It takes a lot of time and energy to preserve relationships and for most people it just isn’t feasible to keep up every friendship that has been acquired.
But absence can also take fondness and transform this into something far more substantial. After university it was the very absence of one person I had known there, who went to work abroad for a couple of years, that really established our relationship. Before she left I liked her but didn’t know her very well, by the time she returned our friendship had transformed into something solid, which is still strong some eight years down the line.
Whilst she was away we took on the seemingly now old fashioned approach of communicating through letter writing. What sounds like a distant means of staying in touch was the most liberating correspondence I have ever had. Sitting down and taking the time to think about and write a letter but not worrying about the immediacy of a response, and with someone I knew but initially wasn’t emotionally invested in, meant that I felt free to really open up and expose a very honest side of myself. What could have taken years in a more naturally evolving friendship began to take shape in about six months. Absence in that instance took mere fondness and transformed it into a long-lasting friendship.

buttons write

I haven’t been an expat long, only a few months to date, but knowing that this is a longer term move for me, likely to last a couple of years if not longer, has made me very aware of those that I have left behind. Facebook is great for being able to keep in touch with lots of people and share details of your life and take in aspects of theirs, but it can be too easy to rely on this and think that because you have kept up with a few snippets of people’s lives that this is the same meaningful connection that may have led you to add each other as Facebook friends in the first place.
Now that I know friends and family aren’t just a quick bus or train ride away, even if I didn’t actually make those journeys all that often, for the first time in years I’m consciously working on keeping these relationships going because I’ve realised I don’t just want them to fade away into distant memories.
I’m calling people far more frequently than I ever did in the UK and I’m making greater efforts to meet up with people in person in Switzerland, the UK or somewhere in between. Now that it has become harder to stay in touch, my efforts to do so have multiplied to meet the challenge.
If nothing else my little adventure in Switzerland has made my heart grow fonder and has energised me to realise that, like with so many other aspects of my life, my friendships are worth working at. If I want to keep relationships with friends strong (family too, but they kind of have to be there so it’s a bit different) I can’t just sit back and expect these to flourish all on their own. If I don’t keep them going, and my friends are similarly content to sit back and simply assume we’ll stay in touch, then we will drift apart due to the sorry excuse of just not making an effort.
My whole fear of the reaper philosophy has been great at motivating me to take on new challenges and to try things that scare me on a sliding scale from slightly intimidating to down-right terrifying. But I wouldn’t want this motivation to keep on moving forward to come at the cost of losing sight of the valuable things I have acquired in the past.
Just as what I achieve, or at least have a go at, each year is down to me so too is the art of maintaining bonds with those I care about. Obviously friendships do require an effort on the part of those I want to be friends with, or at least a weary resignation, but this doesn’t mean I can shirk my responsibilities in this regard and nor would I want to.