The speed of history

i dunno

Time feels weird right now. The way we experience and feel time has a lot to do with what’s happening around us and our routines, and all that has changed, because something is happening now that never happened before. Pandemics have happened before, but the world is different from what it was when those pandemics happened. People and information moves differently, the structure of jobs and relationships and society is different, so it’s a different event. We started out in 2020 experiencing time differently from anyone else in history, and now things got even more different.

What’s going on with how time feels?

One thing that’s happening is history is moving very fast. People’s lives always moved fast, but headline history, political change, feels like it’s moving quickly. We can mark a lot of unprecedented events in American political history since 2016, and we barely have time to process each one. Events compound, a debt accrues. It has gotten even faster now, measurably so. The rate of increase in unemployment is the fastest since we’ve been recording those numbers, the Great Depression compressed into a few days. This is something you can read and also experience. This is not distant. Everyone’s lives, jobs, and communities have changed very quickly, and it has to remember how quickly this happened. This has not happened as quickly to so many people in these generations ever before.

Another thing that’s happening is things are moving slow with COVID. We keep seeing things a few weeks ago. We’re in a weird delay. We see, for example, a gathering of people in public, and we know we’ll see the results in sickness in the neighborhood of the next week, and in deaths the week after that, but meanwhile so much political and economic change is happening every day that we don’t know what world will receive these things. A brick is in the air, and in the time we’re waiting for it to crash, hundreds more bricks are thrown up. We and people around us have been hit and we don’t know how bad yet. We’re walking through minefields, and don’t know if we stepped on a mine until many days later, and then we don’t know yet what damage the mine did.

The American media is about as up-to-date on the crisis as the callers on the Pre-Taped Call-In Show in this Mr. Show sketch. Will we every learn?*

And amidst all this time-shifting, we have the ability to see more stories at once than anyone else who has lived has. Media is social and international, interlocal, broadly distributed. We can see reported stories, official stories, personal anecdotes, anecdotes from people we don’t know personally but who are distributed person-to-person like a game of telephone, we check in with people in life, we get little reports. There’s the famous quote by the sci-fi writer William Gibson, “the future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed,” and that applies a lot today. The future is coming in very fast, lots of future is arriving, and distribution is uneven in so many ways.

So those are things that are happening to all of us. But it lands so much differently different places. What all these speeding events in history mean for the speed of your mind or the feeling of your day depends on so many things. Already we were experiencing different speeds of life, and now they’re all getting distorted.

There’s no universal experience of these times, because it depends so much on your own safety and support networks and jobs and habits. Early in the quarantine, some people started sharing a lot of stories about some historical people who were very productive in their own quarantines, but their times were not our times, and their place within their time didn’t match other people’s place in those same times and anyone’s place today is unlikely to match someone else’s. Rightly they were called out. Because people are in wildly different places, there’s not one coherent thing you can say people should be doing, , other than being kind to yourself and others and surviving, which of course is very dependent on where you find yourself and who you interact with and what your role is and what survival entails.

It doesn’t seem easy. My own days are relatively easy, and still I find it very hard to get through them. Obligations stack up faster than I can manage them. I’m keeping a couple part-time jobs, a relationship, and some dog care going, and am falling behind on nearly everything else: keeping up with people in my life, political organizing, writing, studying for my MFA, all sorts of communications, keeping the room clean, finding new jobs, finding new housing, invoicing, taxes, getting new tires, etc., etc.. What saves me is that I’ve got some buffer zone from the disaster level of any of these things, and that’s mostly just privilege, with a little bit of active choice on top of it.

What I do is this: I let myself fail, and I forget it and eat dinner and relax and shut down for part of the day. Because I know I’m prone to getting anxious, depressed, and overwhelmed if I’m not careful, I tell myself “this is all I can do without breaking.” Which is something I can do because, while there are a lot of external pressures, the hardest-breaking ones for me are internal. Nobody is breaking me for falling a little short.

This is not something we grant to everyone, but it should be. One of the deepest American political (both formally and in the micropolitics of our job and social/gender/racial structures) instincts is to punish people for falling short of where we think they should be, unevenly distributed, expectations far beyond reasonable for the people faced with doing the most to get through a day. It has never been a fair or reasonable thing to do. But in these days, when the shifts are so extreme that few people know for sure that they are guaranteed to not be one of the people who gets overwhelmed, the callousness that is so easily normalized in other times might start to crack. Or at least, the callousness better crack, because the alternative is that the breaking happens in people.

A few weeks ago, I taught what may end up being my last class being physically present in a New York City public school. The kids at the school are pushed pretty hard. The grades of the top-ranking students are posted on the walls and updated every time report cards come out. The standards are high. Almost every kid is worried about their future. A lot suffer from anxiety and don’t get enough sleep.

Aside - just this December - I can’t believe it was this recent - former presidential candidate Michael Bennet made this proposal.

Bennet seems to be a genuinely well-meaning guy, but this is an example of where the default American political instinct is to push, and while I don’t know much, I’ve taught enough kids who live in poverty (and deal with racism) to know that the problem is not a lack of pushing. That would be cruelty, and stress out them and their families more. They honestly just need a world that cuts them more slack and gives them more chances.

I teach them the SAT, mostly math. I try to teach them both how to do things – even though the test is a slog, I really enjoy the subject matter, and these kids are bright and ask good questions, which makes the classes fun – and how to relax and be easier on themselves and each other. We also talk a little bit about the world and about how things are going – the coronavirus, the job market, preparing for the future. There’s things they can control and things they can’t. They were making good progress, getting more cheerful, before things with the virus got out of control

That class hasn’t come back yet after the coronavirus. Maybe it won’t, or shouldn’t. It might be enough work getting the basics up and running, much less the supplementary course. They already took the March 4th SAT, anyway, and the subsequent ones keep getting cancelled, which is the right call. I wonder how they, (and a lot of other people) are doing. One thing I liked about talking to the kids most days is that it was a way to have a conversation about what was going on in the world, something you can’t figure out from isolation.

This Tuesday I taught my first class after the COVID-19 shutdown, a remote US History SAT subject test prep course via Zoom. Normally a class like that would be very chatty, dynamic. This one felt empty. Kids chimed in with the relevant information I asked for, but there was no sense of conversation. The dynamics just aren’t the same.

The subject itself is strange, too. The SAT-II history test is entirely multiple-choice test, weighted toward the earliest, deadest, history, and with a conventional view on it, too. One thing I want to get across to the kids is that this isn’t really history, what they’re learning, but that there are useful and interesting stories connecting some of the conventional, bloodless dots on the test. That this is alive, something happening, something to grasp. I send out emails with “today in history” notes trying to make things active. But probably it’s not connecting, when their lives are already overwhelmed and my job is very specific, make sure they improve their performance on this specific test.

So I leave without understanding much at all. A lot is happening very fast, a lot that would take a long time to unpack in peaceful times, but we don’t know if those will ever come. And patches are very slow, but because we’re drifting, we don’t know where we’ll land. I don’t know how to end this, just that I need to be done for tonight, for my own good.

AND NOW, A REMINDER OF SOMETHING FUN

You guys remember Homestar Runner? That was WEBSITE, like really a thing that only made sense as a website, with its own world and its own sense of humor. I don’t have anything to say about it, but I think one thing that is always good is an immersive world that’s fun and interesting and creative and makes people happen, and if this one was your style, I just wanted to let people know that it still exists, you just need to click on “Old Flash Site” and there it is! Here’s the Strong Bad emails.

AND SOME COMEDY ANALYSIS

*Several years ago, I taught a comedy class called “Literary Elements of Sketch Comedy,” and for “structure” we looked at the “Pre-Taped Call-In Show” sketch and the logical structure of the internal world. Here were my notes:

Pre-Taped Call-in Show: Entire sketch is about the structure of this imaginary show, and the mix-ups that occur. Structure, which gets complex, proceeds from a few simple rules (like in math)

  • The call in show always airs exactly when the next week’s show is taping.

  • The host always explains the structure accurately to the viewers.

  • The viewers always fail to listen to his instructions, and attempt to call in to the show they see.

Thus:

  • Anyone calling in will always talk to the host taping the next week’s show, but will want to talk about the show currently airing.

  • Any caller heard in the show being scene will have called the previous week, while the previous week’s show was airing. 

  • The host will always ask callers to participate in the next weeks’ show, but we know from the history of this show that they will not.

In more detail:

If the show airs Week N, then…

The show was taped Week N - 1.

Week N-1 is the host’s “now” (when it happened)

Week N is the viewers’ “now” (when you see it)

Host talks about the topic for Week N.

Callers are asking about the topic from that aired week N – 1.

The show airing Week N + 1 is taping.

The host asks for callers for Week N + 1.

The show creates callers for the show to be aired Week N + 1, but these callers will be attempting to participate in Week N. 

Concrete examples:

Week 1 (Crime in the Streets)

Taped Week 0.

Week 0 is the host’s “now.”

Week 1 is the viewers’ “now”

There was no episode airing Week 0, so no callers were created the past week. Conversation is about Crime in the Streets, held by the host (w/guest) alone without any callers.

The show airing Week 2 (Racism) is taping.

Host asks for callers for Week 2 (Racism).

The show creates callers for the Week 2 (Racism) show, but these callers will be attempting to talk about Week 1 (Crime in the Streets)

Week 2 (Racism)

Taped Week 1

Week 1 is the host’s “now”

Week 2 is the viewers’ “now.”

The Week 1 show was Crime in the Streets, so callers were watching Crime in the Streets. Conversation was between the host trying to talk about Racism, and callers trying to talk about Crime in the Streets.

The show airing Week 3 (The Elderly) is taping.

Host asks for callers for Week 3 (The Elderly)

The show creates callers for the Week 3 (Elderly) show, but these callers will be attempting to talk about Week 2 (Racism). 

Week 3 (The Elderly)

Taped Week 2

Week 2 is the host’s “now.”

Week 3 is the viewers’ “now.”

The Week 2 show was Racism, so callers were watching Racism. Conversation was between the host trying to talk about The Elderly, while callers were trying to talk about Racism. Additionally, callers saw a Racism show derailed by people talking about Crime in the Streets.

The show airing Week 4 (Pet Care) is taping.

The host asks for callers for Week 4 (Pet Care)

The show creates callers for the Week 4 (Pet Care) show, but these callers will be attempting to talk about Week 3 (The Elderly)

**WE ARE HERE** Week 4 (Pet Care)

Taped Week 3.

Week 3 is the host’s “now” (so when he says Rock Lyrics airs “in two weeks,” he means Week 5).

Week 4 is the viewers’ “now” (so when he addresses viewers, he’s telling them what to do in Week 4 to create the show for Week 5, but when he’s addressing callers, he’s telling them what to do in Week 3 to create the show for Week 4).

The Week 3 show was The Elderly, so callers were watching The Elderly. Conversation is between the host trying to talk about Pet Care, while callers are trying to talk about The Elderly. In addition, callers saw a show about The Elderly derailed by people talking about Racism (we hear one of these callers).

The show airing Week 5 (Rock Lyrics) is taping, so we are to imagine the host is experiencing the taping of this episode, though we can’t see him and he can’t communicate with us.

The host asks for callers for Week 5 (Rock Lyrics)

We are to assume the show creates callers for Week 5 (Rock Lyrics) who will be attempting to talk about Week 4 (Pet Care).

The entire sketch is seen through this one (Week 4) episode. The beginning of sketch is the host explaining the simple premise, and the rest of the sketch is us seeing the complex results. He can explain the premise in character, because this host really would explain the premise to the viewers, and we can see the results in the show itself, because the results would derail the show if our initial principles hold. 

In this reality, the world compounds so that each episode of the show contains the show’s entire history through explanations and arguments, so we can see one week and learn about all weeks. 

We’re able to enjoy this mathematical sketch because of the real human reality of it in David Cross’s exasperated character (we see later that he grew more exasperated with each iteration, but we start seeing him four weeks in.) In this way it’s much like the world in LMFAO’s Non-Stop Party, where the world is fun is seeing a human put through that torment. In LMFAO, the world is surreal/supernatural (Hell, Kafka fiction, etc.), in this sketch his world is entirely created by the foolish format of his own show and the callers who can’t figure it out. 

Side notes: 

* The TV reveal, while the most hilarious part of the sketch, setting up the rapid-fire unpacking of the nesting dolls, and the progression back to the optimistic host of the first episode, doesn’t strictly make sense. He can’t show a TV to a caller; they would only be able to hear it. Definitely worth it, though. Still plausible he would use the TV to show future viewers what mistake the caller was making, but also we’re getting so much payoff so fast, using the world’s logic, that the detail gets a pass.

end

Loading more posts…