27.1.11

Blips in the programming

I.
Yesterday afternoon, at a weekly lecture on capitalism and cultural studies, the professor asked what the date was. Someone up front told him, and he said, "Okay, so it's been two years, four days" since Obama said he would close down the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. My brain (and handwritten notes) processed this as a 2008 event. A little later in the lecture, he made reference to Daniel Bensaïd passing away last year. I wrote down, "2009", then paused.

What year is it? 2010? 2011?
Wait, how old am I? I don't remember ... I'm 30-what?
Wait, Chinese New Year is coming, is it the year of the ...?


The thoughts must've tumbled over each other in seconds, but it felt longer: suspended in-between time, I wondered what year it was, when I was, what the hell was going on.

Then the cloud cleared, I wrote over the "2009" beside Bensaïd's name in my notes, turning it into a "2010".

What year is it? What does it matter?

II.
I've been trying to take the advice of the Atlantic's Benjamin F. Carlson about appreciating classical music, as articulated in a series of articles on the subject (the first one is here, which I tweeted a few weeks ago). So on the train back from university today, I was trying to concentrate on the piece of music on my iPhone. And then got distracted by other thoughts, but was still semi-soaked in the music, I guess. And then I wondered if I had missed my stop. How much time had passed since I'd gotten on the train, I wasn't even sure.

I looked up at those helpful electronic displays on the train that indicate what stop is coming up next. Honor Oak Park, it promised (aside: don't ask me why this particular station name follows American spelling conventions). I glanced at the Overground route map, or at least at the section of it I was reasonably familiar with. No sign of Honor Oak Park, not even among the stations after my usual stop; in fact it was well south of my train route.

We were in an anonymous black underground tunnel. All I could think was: Where the hell am I? Has my train teleported over to the Honor Oak Park stretch? Were we ... ? What was ... ?

And then the train burst into light, at my usual station Whitechapel, and normality was restored.

It's not easy to encounter one of these moments of existential uncertainty, not when we're surrounded by chiming clocks and flashing mobile phones and chatter. But there is something liberating in that instant of half-panicked suspension, when you're given a quick peek into the depths of the void, before sight and consciousness reassert themselves once more.

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