excerpt from David Olimpio‘s essay collection This Is Not a Confession from Awst Press. Available for order now here.
You wouldn’t think a boy of six would be excited to get an alarm clock for Christmas, but I was. To me, the clock meant maturity. The clock meant I could be trusted to keep time, but more than that, the clock meant I had a reason to keep time. It meant I had places to be. It meant I had things to do.
There is a photo of me holding that analog alarm clock. Smiling. It is Christmas morning. I am in a red and blue flannel robe. My two front teeth are missing. I am six years old. It is 1979.
The time on that clock is forever frozen at 11:25. And that forever- frozen clock face, that perpetually mid-morning moment, would happen in a non-photographed version of that exact same scene if I were to move away from myself at a speed faster than the speed of light. The subsequent seconds would never catch up to my smiling semblance, the proceeding particles of light, a still procession. My teeth would forever remain missing. My hair, forever brown and shaggy. And yet, if I had a watch on my wrist, I would see the seconds on that timepiece tick at a rate I found to be typical. But they wouldn’t be typical to people not traveling at that rate. In fact, they would be moving slowly. And while my teeth would continue to grow out as crooked as they eventually grew, and my hair would gray and go gone, it all would seem to happen much more slowly the faster I sped.
This is the revelation Einstein had in Bern, Switzerland in 1905 while observing the clock tower there and it eventually led to the now-famous equation for energy, along with a controversial shift in the study of physics. It forced us to consider the possibility that time, previously considered an absolute, was actually relative to our movement through space.
The faster we go, the more time slows down. The slower we go, the more time speeds up.
We haven’t yet learned to occupy a different space in relation to time, to occupy one space concurrently at multiple times, or one time concurrently in different spaces, but we do have photographs. Photographs are particular moments in space and time, which we are able to capture and look at out of context of either. They’re proof of our particular stockpile of present-tense moments.
Here, with my dad by the Christmas tree in a year referred to as 1984, also the year my half-brother was born, also the model year of my first car.
Here, graduating high school in a year we called 1992, which in my perception of time happened just before grunge and just after hair metal, but which is still forever happening in some other dimension which, holy god, I’d love to find.
Here, at Disney World in a month called January in a year known as 1980.
The faces in these photographs, which are my faces. The selves in these photographs, which are my selves. The person I was at these different points in my life, which is the person I’ve always been, and which is the person I continue to be—somewhere, sometime. And yet, I don’t quite recognize him. Studying the faces in these photographs, thinking about the selves the faces belonged to. It’s like studying the faces of strangers in a museum.
These moments which, weirdly, were my moments. These moments, which happened to me and continue to happen, whether through looking at these photographs or through the words I use to describe them. Or whether as a silent snapshot in the universe I can no longer find. Without the photographs, these moments might disappear, not from the universe, because they are always there, but from my memory of them, from my personal collection of nows.
By the time I got my second alarm clock, a digital one with a red display which made an awful, pterodactylian sound somewhere between a screech and a squawk, I had already become less enthusiastic about needing to keep time. I was barely two digits old, but I already had too many things to do. I had too many places to be.
Even though I would have preferred to sleep in, I got out of bed most mornings before the sun was up for 6 a.m. swim practice. I would say that I was a disciplined kid to get up so early and go swim laps before school each morning. But if I was disciplined, it was because my mom was disciplined for the both of us. She too would set her alarm. She too shuffled, quiet and confused, to the car with me when it was still dark outside.
These early morning times were personal times for each of us in our own ways. They were strange and nonstandard times. And in that way, they were sort of lonely times.
But they were also shared times. They were our times. When we were doing life in our own small ways together.
I was the one going to swim practice, but she was the one driving me to swim practice. She slept in the car while I swam. She drove me home. And here’s what else she did: She made a breakfast of two eggs, six biscuits, and hot cereal while I showered and got ready for school. She packed a double brown-bag lunch for me while I ate breakfast. She did all of this before she herself got ready and went to work.
And I have no idea what she ate for breakfast (or if she even ate breakfast) before she went to her full day in an office.
Years later, when I went to college and spent my first year alone, I woke up using the clock that was on my stereo as my alarm clock, and it would play whatever tape or CD I wanted to hear first thing. I would get up at least an hour before I had to so that I could shower and eat a full breakfast in the campus dining hall before going to class.
I started my days in the same disciplined way I had always done in grade school, only now I did these things alone.
Except I was never alone.
In a Radiolab podcast episode all about time, the hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, discuss the fact that, until the railroads, there was no such thing as standard time. If you went into Anytown, USA in 1850, a person there might tell you, with all honesty and no will to deceive, that it was a quarter past one in the afternoon. But in a town twenty miles over, at that same time, the town clock might read differently. It might, for instance, read 1:32 p.m. In fact, you might not even need a distance of scores of miles for these discrepancies to occur. Even within the same town, if you walked between businesses, you’d get different readings of the time. It’s because if there were differences in minutes, or even scores of minutes, it didn’t much matter.
Time was local. Time was personal. If time was shared, it was only shared with those in your immediate vicinity.
The railroads changed this. Train schedules changed this. If you were going to make a train departure or arrival, you needed to know the correct time. Time needed to be something that everybody shared so that travelers could be sure to make their departure. Or so store owners could be sure to pick up their shipments.
Time became national, or at least regional. Time became public. Correct time became railroad time.
In 1955, Albert Einstein wrote a letter of condolence to the family of his deceased friend Michele Besso. In it, he made a now-famous remark: “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
When you take Einstein’s theories to their conclusion, you arrive at this troubling idea: Time, as we typically think of it, is an illusion.
There is no last year or last month or tomorrow.
Each moment exists eternally. It is, and is forever. We are wandering in and among a huge collection of present tenses.
There is no forward. There is no back.
Our minds string the moments together in a linear way to help us make sense of them. Our minds supply the construct of before and after.
But there is only now.
There is only now.
My mom’s dad worked for the railroad. He inspected ties. I don’t entirely know what this means, but it’s what he did. My mom loved her dad. She told stories about him a lot. How he used to play the fiddle at family gatherings. How they all would dance. How his energy made those times special.
All this happened before my time. I never got to experience any of this. These were times I missed. I never met her dad. I never met this particular grandfather. I’ve only seen him in photographs. I’ve only felt him through my mom’s words.
When she spoke of her father, my mom never spoke of him with sorrow in her voice, or even with that sort of piety and reverence we sometimes use to speak of the people we love who are now gone. She just spoke of him with love and familiarity. She spoke of him like she had just seen him yesterday. She spoke of him like he was still there.
And who’s to say he wasn’t?
My mom used to tell this one story about how her dad forgot to pick her up at the railroad station one day. She had gone to the station to wait for him. He was coming in on a train from another town and he was supposed to get off that train and pick her up before boarding another train to meet the rest of the family someplace else. My mom had been staying with one set of grandparents and she had walked to the train station by herself to meet her dad there. This was in a time and place when a small kid could do that sort of thing—just walk to the local train station by herself.
The long and short of the story is this: Her dad never got off the train. He forgot to pick her up. And so, even though my mom was on time to the train, she missed him. And even though my mom’s dad was on time to the station, he missed her.
My mom waited for a while at the station. Who knows how long?
Finally, she walked back to her grandparents’ house.
The thought of my mom waiting for her dad alone at that train station in a small town in Michigan is an image I’ve never been able to shake. It’s something I see, and will continue to see, forever. This missed connection in time. This missed connection in space. I will see it forever even though there is no photograph of it. I will see it forever even though it isn’t even my memory to see.
And if I could travel anywhere, I would travel there. To find that girl, and to walk with her back to her grandparents’ house.
To walk with her everywhere.
Maybe I did. I mean, who’s to say I didn’t?
The reason the sport of swimming caught on for me is this: In the end, it was always me against myself. And holy shit, myself was one hell of a competitor. Relentless, that one. Always swimming just a little faster than me. Always working just a little harder. His stroke, always just a little more streamlined. I hardly ever beat him. And even when I did beat him, he always made me feel like he had let me.
I was both at my best and at my worst when I was against him. On the one hand, nobody motivated me more than he did. But nobody psyched me out more than he did, either.
There were surely better swimmers than myself, but myself was the only one I cared about.
I hated that bastard.
Nobody with my level of neurosis has any business being involved in a sport like swimming. I feel like I might have been a much better competitor if, when I got up on the blocks, I was able to externalize my anxiety, place it on the guy next to me. Make him the enemy. That way, I might feel more like I was part of a “team”— my ego, my id, and my many, many voices. But the guy I was most scared of was always swimming in the same lane as me. And I had no idea what kind of crazy shit was in his head, or what kind of dirty trick he was going to pull.
Another way of looking at it isn’t that I was always swimming against myself, but instead that I was always swimming against the clock. With swimming, it is really just you against time, over and over. I remember how happy I would feel if I beat my personal best by a tenth of a second. That was a lot of time in a sprint. And I will admit that even hundredths of a second (hundredths!) over or under my time would either be cause to beat myself up or to celebrate.
This seems crazy to me now. When you’re referring to hundredths of a second, you’re essentially referring to almost the exact same time. That is, if you’re considering things within the context of normal human perception.
Maybe the best swimmers are not those who swim well against themselves or against other swimmers. Maybe the best swimmers are those who swim successfully against time.
I never heard my mom talk about Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Nevertheless, she could make time stand still for me.
During college, when things seemed like they were moving too fast, I would call her and I would say, “None of this makes any sense.” I would say, “I don’t think I can do this.” I would say, “I can’t make anything out anymore.” Usually this happened when I was working on a paper and I would realize late at night, the night before the paper was due, that the paper I had been working on wasn’t the paper I should be writing at all. It was this other paper. My writing process always happened that way in college. I guess it still does.
And so I would call her in a panic from my dorm room in Lexington, Virginia to her apartment one time zone away in Houston, Texas and I’d say, “What am I going to do? There is no time.” And she would remind me that I’d written before and I would write again (I think she stole that from Hemingway). She would say that some part of me must need the pressure that I put on myself with a time crunch. And she was right: The paper would eventually come out.
Those times I spent on the phone with her were like time outs. I could have done them forever because, in them, time stood still. I didn’t hear seconds ticking. I didn’t see clock arms moving.
When we hung up the phone, I would write the paper I needed to write.
This time, just before you dive in the water, when you are on the starting block and the announcer says, “Swimmers, take your mark,” and the pool and the crowd fall silent. In that moment, it seems as though everything you have ever done and everything you have ever thought has led you to this inflated now. So much now that it is on the verge of popping. And there you are, bent over, with your fingers at the edge of the block, simultaneously as calm and as charged as a full balloon resting on the point of a nail.
This time lasts forever.
Then the sound of the buzzer and the spring off the block and through the air and you are slicing into and within the cold water, which is now around you and you are one with it and you are either pulling yourself through it or you are becoming it—it’s hard to tell. There is no sound, even though everybody around you is yelling. There is no movement, even though your coach is walking fast beside you and pointing his finger in front of you every time you take a breath in his direction.
Everything melts away and there is only this energized now and it is forever and swollen and you touch the wall and it is 54.27 seconds. And that is all.
This time you have—this is it.
The last time my mom made time stand still for me was after my sister and I had moved her out of the hospital into a “rehabilitation facility,” but before we had begun the radiation treatments. My mom and I were alone together in her room. And the cancer in her brain, the pain meds, the cabin fever—it was all making her crazy and she was unable to think clearly. And yet she looked at me in a moment of clarity, her eyes as lucid as they had ever been and as lucid as they would ever be again, and she asked a question I can still hear.
“Is this it?”
I like to think that I only flinched everywhere except through my eyes. I said something a politician might say. I said something like, “We’re going to do what we can.” I maybe smiled and it maybe was comforting to her, though I doubt it.
At that time, I thought she was simply asking, “Is this it? Am I going to die from this?” But now I’m also thinking she was talking about time, about this brief race we’ve all entered. She had told me many times how she didn’t feel like she was old, and how she would realize at certain points in her life that grade school was now twenty, now forty, now sixty years ago, but it only felt like yesterday to her. And of course she knew empirically that she was getting old, but inside she still felt like a kid.
I get that now. The window between tenth grade and forty-something years old seems implausibly thin as I stand on this side of it. But when I was in tenth grade, that glass was so thick I couldn’t even see through it, couldn’t imagine there being a forty-something.
And so what I’m thinking now is that when she said, “Is this it?” what she was really saying was something like this: Look, yesterday I was a kid and I had a dog and the doctor made me drink milkshakes for lunch so I could gain weight and not be too skinny and my dad worked for the railroad and one time he forgot to pick me up at the train station. And all that, it feels like it just happened. And now, I am here.
And…is this it?
I keep seeing that moment, no matter how far away I get from it. And the faster I try to move away from it, the slower it seems to move.
In the 100-meter butterfly at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps trailed behind Serbia’s Milorad Čavić the entire race. Then, in the final ten meters, he began to pull close to him. And then, in a magical moment that nobody could believe, not even when you slowed the footage down to single frames, Phelps out-touches Čavić and wins the race by one one-hundredth of a second. When you watch it in super slow motion, frame by frame, you would almost say that what happened was some kind of time warping voodoo, like somehow time sped up for Čavić while time slowed down for Phelps.
And really, who’s to say that didn’t happen?
Rowdy Gaines, who was announcing the event on NBC, said it best during the slow-motion replay of the race. Speaking about Phelps, he exclaims, “He is…magical! He is…Superman!”
Clocks do not lie. Phelps beat Čavić by one one-hundredth of a second.
But here’s the question in my mind: Can we really say that Phelps was faster than Čavić? I mean, really? They were both extremely fast swimmers in the 100-meter butterfly. And in that race in 2008, they both swam what was essentially the same time.
But Phelps won it.
Maybe what these great swimmers have in common, the ones we remember and record in the history books, isn’t just the physical ability to go fast, or the fierce competitive spirit, but some otherworldly, other-dimensional, ability to bend time.
I was lying next to my wife the other morning, watching her sleep, and I had this sudden awareness of all the time that had passed for us. I had the awareness of the many years we’d been together, and the many more years we would hopefully be together. It doesn’t seem like there has ever been a time when I haven’t been with her. And maybe that’s because I’ve spent nearly half my life with her. And in that near-half-life, she and I have aged together. We have become different people together. And yet, when I see her, it is like time has not moved. It is like time has stopped.
The people we love freeze time. They bend time. They make time irrelevant. And the reason it feels like they have always been with us is because they always have been, and they always will be, eternally.
It felt like I always knew my wife even on the first day I met her. And I’m still there. I always will be: Somewhere, at a point in the universe which our minds process as the year 1997, I am forever meeting her in a bar where I worked in Plano, Texas.
Somewhere, a swimmer is forever out-touching another swimmer by one one-hundredth of a second.
Somewhere, a man is forever looking up at a clock tower in Bern, Switzerland.
Somewhere, a girl is forever waiting for her father, alone at a Michigan train station.
Somewhere, a man is forever lying next to his wife, watching her sleep.
The next moment, and the next, which will let us see eternal.
1 While there are likely many resources where a person could read about what led Einstein to come up with his theory of relativity, I took much of this information from the following source: Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, David McDermott, V.S. Ramachandran, Lisa Randall, and Terry Wilcox, interviewed by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, “Beyond Time,” Radiolab, Season 1, Episode 5, podcast audio, March 4, 2005, http://www.radiolab.org/story/91504-be- yond-time/.
2 “Collection of nows” is a phrase used in “Beyond Time.”
3 Brian Greene, Jay Griffiths, Ben Rubin, Oliver Sacks, and Rebecca Solnit, hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, “Time,” Radiolab, Season 1, Episode 4, podcast audio, February 25, 2005, http://www.radiolab.org/sto- ry/91584-time/.
4 The 1955 letter from Albert Einstein to the family of Michele Besso is also discussed in “Beyond Time.”