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Tipping Over the Actuarial Tables

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No one in neuroscience thinks time is not important.
Criticisms arise with how time management is achieved.

- Dr. Patricia Churchland, philosopher/brain scientist


When handling the past in the present tense, chronology is of the   
utmost importance. Suppose I say I’m eight years old and all the rooms   
of my father’s house are larger than life.
Then I say Two days after my   
first divorce, the only landscape I know is simplified, bone-smooth
. The   
past remains practically undisturbed. But suppose I reverse the order   
in which the episodes are recreated, and time goes on a rampage, and
I find myself coming and going. Journeys on land have a spherical
tendency because this is always at some level the nature of the ter-
rain. The anthill crumbles in the rain and the ants returning with
more provisions walk past the leveled mound; having noticed noth-
ing, they keep looking for home. Though each mouth carries its
crumb of substance, tradition and evolution will see to it that it isn’t
eaten until the journey has been completed. It’s not unusual for the
ants to walk repeatedly over the ruins. A squirrel chases itself so fast
around the trunk of a palm tree that it appears to be standing still,
like propeller blades in midflight. (I used to know the cause of this
illusion.) I say Someone’s at the door, somebody please get the door
although I haven’t lived there in years. Somebody please get the door.
I want nothing more than my share of the past.


True. There are degrees of isolation. Sixteen days after a shopping
center collapses like a punctured lung in Seoul, South Korea, a nine-
teen-year-old girl is found alive in an elevator shaft. Her only nour-
ishment throughout the ordeal is an apple that a monk gives her in
a dream. The doctors are skeptical and attribute her survival, instead,
to “her false perception of time.” The brain—with its network of
rivers and tributaries, the flow rigorously controlled—is taxed by a
sudden drought. Or an apple passes from one hand to another. In
both versions, extraordinary measures achieve a modicum of nor-
malcy, shaken again when a boy—age thirteen, his circadian rhythms
still fighting the syncopation of jet lag—walks out the window on
the thirtieth floor of a Swedish building. They’re calling it “a sleep-
walking accident,” as if sleep were a cognitive state. If that were the
case, our sheep and our prayers would keep us up all night, count-
ing and repenting, and there would be degrees of salvation. I can tell
you that none of this is true, but much of it is, and you will not for-
give me when you discover that I’ve led you to believe otherwise.
The truth, in one form or another, has ways of finding you. Blame
it on your false perception of the facts. Time the sniper has lapses in
which its eyes tire and its focus falters and it aims at itself. So the
window opens; the girl shakes the rubble from her dress; a monk,
gathering apples in his robe, almost catches the falling boy.


They say that when the Who performed at Leeds University on
Valentine’s Day 1970, Pete Townshend played against his own echo
during some of those riveting excursions he launched into through-
out the band’s quarter-hour-long offering of "My Generation." I lis-
ten to it differently now. I wait for the echo they tell me is there,
preceding each note, and it’s as if I were experiencing the music a pri-
ori. I listen to the chords or whole riffs bouncing off the walls versus sound
in real time. Doing so, I miss the actual song, which is also delayed
because this is, after all, a recording. Once, the concept of real time
was redundant. Before the first gramophone. Before we learned to
manipulate the speed of things to come. And long before that, the idea
of a spirit that takes over for the temporary body was already popular.
Perhaps our first attempt to deny the unavoidable. One new religion
offers immortality. For a price. Unlike traditional religions in which
death is a prerequisite, this one teaches the body to bypass the soul,
that middle man who always gets in the way, and the here-and-now
becomes a here-and-always. It’s all up here, one of its members says to
me, pointing his index finger at his temple, as if mimicking a gun. I
may actually want to die before I get old, I think, the radio as loud as
it’ll go, one chord after another bouncing off the walls so many years
ago at Leeds, the road much longer than I’d expected, the signal grow-
ing weaker and one station giving way to another. From feedback to
static to a preacher who invites me or commands me or dares me to
lay my hands on the radio. Both hands, he says. I raise my legs, raise
my whole body (although it’s not levitation or anything nearly as glam-
orous) to steady the steering wheel.


In The Book of Ironies they forgot to write that a superstitious
woman will end up marrying an atheist. Curiously, in all the cases I
know, it’s the man who doesn’t believe. The woman is always open
at the very least to the possibility of that “something out there.” At
times her superstitions are proof of God’s constant tinkering with
the cogs and wheels of the soul. There are atheists with proof of a
finite world, atheists in need of a finite world, reformed atheists
whose image of God has become so pure over the years that it has
gone from inevitable to unnecessary to simply impossible. One
believer argues that only the next life makes this one tolerable and
lends it purpose, that only the idea of being part of something cir-
cular can keep us from going mad, because true madness is linear
and the points at either end are clearly defined. This is an uncom-
fortable thought for her. I wonder if her belief is, more than any-
thing, a way to keep at bay this linear derangement. The atheist lying
beside her is beginning to sink into sleep when she speaks: she has
carefully chosen this moment, thinking he’s vulnerable enough to
say what she wants to hear. He sits on the edge of the bed and won-
ders for a moment what it would be like to take that leap forward;
or backward, which is something she doesn’t mention: believers of
her kind tend to discount any previous incarnations, as if eternity
began here. Being here, he says to himself as he has said to her so
many times, is the point. Then he tries to think his way back to sleep:
wedding band, crown, zero, smoke ring, lasso, hula hoop.

Dionisio  D. Martinez, "Tipping Over the Actuarial Tables" from Climbing Back. Copyright © 2001 by Dionisio  D. Martinez.  Used by permission of the author and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Source: Climbing Back (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 2001)
Tipping Over the Actuarial Tables

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