Rip Van Winkle fell asleep for 20 years? Big deal. I take a lot of naps myself, since my stroke.
Also, I’m older than Rip was when he woke up, near as I can figure. And this gives a very, very different conception of what constitutes a “long time.” This was on display in a response I gave to a Doug Ross comment earlier this week. But let’s not talk about that. The exchange was about one of the least interesting subjects in the known universe — interest rates. (He was impressed by a 21-year high. I was not.)
And I want to talk about time.
You may think this a subject that’s been done to death, too, and you’d be right, up to a point. I mean, we all know that time speeds up as we get older. I knew full well when I was 40 that a year went by a LOT faster than it did when I was, say, 10. You’ve all experienced it, even you youngsters.
But after that, time accelerates at an accelerating pace. And now that I’m a very few weeks away from turning 70, I can tell you that I’m experiencing something like Ludicrous Speed, and I’m in a new dimension, or something.
And the only way I can measure the change is to compare it to the ways I perceived time in the past — which seem, well, ludicrous to me now. Examples:
- I’m jealous of my children and grandchildren because they learned about the Second World War, the event that loomed over my childhood, in history class. I had to read up on it myself. I was born eight years after 1945, and when I was a kid, I figured that had been plenty of time to document it fully in the textbooks. And it DID appear, as a sort of epilogue, in some of my books. But my teachers never got that far by the end of the term. I was an adult before I understood that it was so recent that it was hard for adults to wrap their heads around the idea that it was history. They saw it as current events. How could we not know all about it? Anyway, I felt really left out, because my world was full of indications that this monumental thing had happened just before I was born, and my elders knew all about it, but they weren’t sharing. I spent a lot of time, whenever I was in the school library, looking at those LIFE magazine coffee-table books full of pictures from that period. By high school, I was devouring adult novels set in the period, and then got into the actual history books…
- In my senior year of high school, I wrote a research paper for my civics class (a course with one of those faddish names like “Problems in American Democracy”) about Robert F. Kennedy — not the one who’s running quixotically for president now, but his Dad, who was not crazy, and was a contender if not the favorite back in ’68. Of course, I didn’t write the paper until the night before it was due — an all-nighter, since I had to type it after writing it longhand (I lacked skills I later took for granted). But I had been reading up on him for some time — at least one book covering his whole life, and a bunch of magazine articles. I really, truly had a strong sense that I was writing about a figure from way back in history; I remember this clearly. I had known next to nothing about him when he was alive, so I was learning about the distant past. But he had been assassinated only three years before! Had he survived, and won the 1968 election, he would still have been in his first term when I was writing it! It was like — the 2020 election, looked back upon now.
- That one reminds of an incident illustrating how clueless I still was well into my 30s. When I was the news editor of The Wichita Eagle-Beacon, from 1985-87, I was asked to help with the screening of a candidate for assistant metro editor. Before meeting her, I read through her clips from her reporting days, and was deeply impressed by one of her stories: It was about the spontaneous speech RFK gave to a crowd in Indianapolis upon learning of the assassination of Martin Luther King. It was a profoundly great speech, and if you’ve never heard it, go listen. This was two months before he himself was killed. It was an amazing story, and she did a good job with it. But what I remember thinking was, She was there? She was an actual working journalist way back in history like that? I wasn’t used to dealing with anyone that old. And when I met her, she actually had gray hair! (Mind you, it was only as far back as… well, this blog is older than that.) But ancient as she was, we hired her, and I really liked her. Old people can be interesting.
- Just one more, and this is the one that really gets my head spinning. As I said, as a kid, WWII was history, even though by an adult perspective, it had just happened. The 1930s — the days of Prohibition and Al Capone and the Great Depression — that was way back when my parents were little kids, and they were antediluvian, right? In the Roaring ’20s, my mom hadn’t even been born. The First World War? I didn’t know anybody who had served in that, although I heard legends about an uncle who had been gassed, and always had poor health, and died long before I came along. To me, it was like hearing about Henry V at Agincourt.
Let’s break down that last bullet, from an adult perspective. Let’s compare perceptions of time in 1963 — the year I turned 10 — to today:
- In 1963, the end of the war was no more distant than 2005 is now. You know, the year I started this blog. Which just happened, right?
- Al Capone had gone to prison for tax evasion in 1932. That was the same distance back as 1992. According to Wikipedia, some of the top movies of that year were “Lethal Weapon 3” (not 1 or 2), “A Few Good Men” (yay, Aaron Sorkin), “Sister Act,” and “Wayne’s World.” If you think those are old films, you and I might have trouble communicating.
- This month in 1927, President Coolidge proposed federal funding for the planned sculptures on Mount Rushmore. And my Dad wasn’t born yet. That same distance back from now, I became the governmental affairs editor of The State, after having been a supervising editor at other newspapers for seven years.
- Now it really gets creepy. In 1963, the start of the Great War, the War to End All Wars — which would lead to the ends of the Russian, Hapsburg and Ottoman empires — was 49 years back. But I have realized that this wasn’t the same as Agincourt. My wife and I celebrated our 49th anniversary on Friday.
Never mind stuff I can still remember. These books I’ve often mentioned recently expanding the notion of “history” to way before the dawn of writing have expanded my concept of time to what most Americans who know who the Kardashians would consider… ludicrous.
I’m reminded of a conversation I overheard on the USC campus back when I worked in an office, and took long daily walks around the campus and downtown area. These two boys were walking behind me, and one of them was bitching about having to take a course in stupid history — as if anybody cared about that.
His friend, however, protested that learning history was important to understanding our world, and he got the first kid to agree, reluctantly. I almost applauded, but in keeping with my lifelong habit of hanging back and observing, I didn’t (anyway, they may have found that a bit… condescending).
But then I heard the first kid say, “Yeah, OK. But this was, like, 500 years back! Who needs to know about that?”
The friend felt compelled to walk back his position: “Well, maybe not 500 years! Let’s not be ridiculous…”
I just kept walking.
Five hundred years ago, what we call the Modern Era had already begun. The Roman Empire, which kinda got Western civilization all going and organized, had collapsed more than a thousand years earlier.
As old as I may look, boys, I don’t personally remember those things. But come on…