The Wit's Guide to Time
Or, mox nox
Metaphor confuses many things but nothing more than time. It flies, it stretches, it drags, we save it, we spend it, we waste it, we kill it, and then it devours us. The best metaphor about time is really about misdirection:
“Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”
— Anthony Oettinger
And it wasn’t even Groucho Marx who said it but rather a researcher in computational linguistics, which is further proof we don’t understand time at all. As the physicist Richard Feynman pointed out, when you look up the definition of time, it’s defined as a period, and a period is defined as a time. So maybe Nietzsche and Matthew McConaughey in True Detective were both correct: Time is a flat circle. But you can know that and still be late for everything.
“Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so.”
— Douglas Adams
Despite not understanding time, we’ve decided to fight it. Time is the title of Jennifer Egan’s 2011 novel A Visit From The Goon Squad, and the characters take turns taking their lumps.
“Time’s a goon, right? Isn’t that the expression?” asks the aging rock star (and is there any other kind?) “I’ve never heard that,” the aging journalist responds, but he doesn’t disagree. And later the aging record executive asks, “You gonna let that goon push you around?” For lack of a better option, of course you are.
“Time wounds all heels.”
— Frank Case
The war on time is a relatively new campaign, and it’s as likely to succeed as all wars on abstractions. Consider the ominous inscriptions on sundials: One of these hours will be your last. Life passes like the shadow. All hours wound, the last one kills. Time flows away as it seems to stay the same. All sound prettier in Latin, especially my favourite: Mox nox. Night, shortly.
“I am a sundial, and I make a botch
Of what is done far better by a watch.”
— Hilaire Belloc
Now instead of being spooked by our timekeeping devices, we’re distracted. Pick up your phone to check the time and find you’ve just lost five minutes to various notifications. Isn’t it fitting that the most popular time-wasting app of all is named for the sound a clock makes as it counts down your remaining hours? (But then, that’s where I learned about the sundials.)
“Is it not proper cause for fright
That what is day will soon be night?”
— Ogden Nash
And just as we’re unable to grapple with Newtonian time, along comes quantum physics. Maybe there are multiple timelines all at once and time isn’t an arrow so much as an infinite volley of arrows, all going in different directions. How can we possibly win that battle? (Hint: By not framing it as a battle.)
But maybe this is just a convenient way to explain why they cast Michael Keaton as Batman in the new Flash movie. Based only on the trailer, I’m sure that watching it will take time, but you’ll save time later by never again thinking about it.
“I pen my lines, I finish, I scan them
I’m not the poet who began them.”
— Ogden Nash
Better to use a few of your finite hours reading Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. One of my all-time favourite books, it’s a philosophical exploration disguised as a guide to productivity that’s really a screed against productivity: Managing time is just another way of avoiding reality. Yikes, huh? Since we’re at time, let’s go out with his chilling observation about reheating:
“You’ll have noticed how frequently the office microwave still has seven or eight seconds left on the clock from the last person who used it, a precise record of the moment at which the impatience became too much for them to bear.”
— Oliver Burkeman
Coming soon: Email without the E
You know the famous assembling-a-team montage in movies? That’s me right now, tracking down artists and illustrators to create Riposte Cards for my first batch of paying customers. Thank you!
For a mere seven Canadian dollars a month (or just 49.7 Jersey Pounds a year), I’ll commission a series of clever quips on beautiful postcards and actually physically mail them to you. Plus, Get Wit Quick will make a donation to PEN Canada! What say you?
“Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils”
— Hector Berlioz
This newsletter is a mediocre teacher, but it ain’t never killed no one. Still, there’s always next week! Well, not always.
Get Wit Quick No. 189 was quick because we are time. Mox nox! Glorious thanks to Emily for the buoying words of praise, Josh for finding that TikTok, Isaac for the logo, and the Deep Six of you who have become founding Riposte Carders. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting came out some time ago; the ❤️ below beats in ¾ time.