Thursday, February 21, 2013
Three Levels of Time: Anticipation, Memory and How The Soundtrack of a Life Evolves
I first read Harold T. P. Hayes' Three Levels of Time when I was in high school; it was not an assigned text but rather a book that I read of my own volition--and it contained more insight than anything I ever encountered in a formal curriculum: the questions that Hayes asks about the origins of life and the future of the human race plus the insightful way that he deals with a variety of subjects ranging from physics to biology to ecology to philosophy are unforgettable. I love reading so much that it is difficult for me to single out just one book but--if pressed to do so--I usually cite Three Levels of Time as my favorite non-fiction book; the title refers to three interwoven stories: (1) the evolution of life on Earth (as described by various scientists interviewed by Hayes), (2) Hayes' travels around the world to interview these scientists and (3) the dramatic saga of John Vihtelic, a man who survived for more than two weeks after being trapped in his car following an accident. The bulk of the book contains Hayes' conversations with several fascinating and influential scientists, including Dr. Archie Carr, Dr. Otto Frankel, Dr. Garrett Hardin, Dr. Hugh Lamprey, Richard Leakey and Dr. Cyril Ponnamperuma; each chapter opens with a description of how the resourceful Vihtelic adapted to various challenges, so the reader gradually and simultaneously explores the evolution of life--an improbable story that took place on a global scale--while also learning about how one specific person triumphed against tremendous odds--an improbable story that took place in a ravine in Washington.
The way that Hayes' narrative seamlessly integrates so many different themes is similar to how Frank Herbert's classic novel Dune is simultaneously a bildungsroman about Paul Atreides, an allegorical tale about ecology/resource scarcity, a meditation on the nature of power/charismatic leadership and an action-packed thriller with unexpected plot twists. An attentive reader of Three Levels of Time learns a great deal about the human race's humble past, precarious present and uncertain future. It is perhaps not immediately apparent what Vihtelic's story has to do with the larger scientific and philosophical issues that Hayes addresses throughout the book but by the end the message is clear: the ingenuity and adaptability that Vihtelic demonstrated in a life-threatening situation is a small scale example of the ingenuity and adaptability that will be required for humanity to save itself and the planet. Hayes makes the reader comfortable with the sometimes complex subject matter by portraying himself as an earnest student on a journey of discovery as opposed to a pedant lecturing a class; while this is a shrewd narrative choice, I believe that Hayes understood a bit more than he suggested, much like the TV detective Columbo was two steps ahead of everyone else even though he acted like he was perpetually confused. Hayes asks entomologist Dr. Howard Ensign Evans a deceptively simple question: "Is the basic point of evolution the tendency of all organisms to move toward complexity?" Hayes self-deprecatingly describes Dr. Evans' response (p. 59): "He looks at me blankly, as though I had slept through the semester. 'The basic direction of evolution is toward adaptiveness to the environment at that particular time. No. It's not toward complexity.'" This exchange unfolds much like the way that a straight man sets up a comedian for the punch line; rather that making the reader feel uninformed, Hayes softens the blow at his own expense. The larger point is that even though human beings are very complex organisms compared to the single cell organisms that constituted the first life on Earth, the success or failure of the human race will ultimately be determined by its adaptability in the face of serious survival challenges; will humanity figure out how to feed the hungry, treat the sick, end war and live in harmony with the other life forms on Earth or will humanity become extinct like so many other species?
Three Levels of Time contains many great quotes, which is a tribute not only to the brilliance of the people who Hayes interviewed but also to Hayes' ability to ask the right questions at the right time; an interview is very much like a duet and a great answer is often the product of an insightful question. Here is what Dr. Frankel tells Hayes about humanity's future (p. 168): "This is a difficult world, and we really have stacked the cards so heavily against ourselves! Probably we have always done that, but now the system has become so complicated. In some ways maybe we'll muddle through. There is a quotation [E.F.] Schumacher has at the end of his book [Small is Beautiful]--that no problem is ever solved, but we find some way of dealing with it. Not solving it but just nibbling at it."
Dr. Hardin echoes the complexity theme (p. 180): "The basic concept of ecology is that the world is a vast, complicated, interconnected system. You can never do merely one thing, so whenever you do, you do a bunch of other things. This means that if you're concerned about the total effects of what you do, you carry out ahead of time a technology assessment--you try to predict the secondary, the tertiary effects of what you perform. You have to follow the philosophical principle of 'guilty until proven innocent.'"
Three Levels of Time instantly captured my interest with the intriguing Lewis Mumford epigraph cited above; it is not only true that our lives are delicately balanced between anticipation and memory but it is also true that our memories are constantly shaped and molded by subsequent events. Think about the soundtrack of your life, the songs that remind you of special times and/or strong emotions; your perspective about the various songs in that soundtrack evolves as new memories supplement older memories. I don't remember the first time that I heard Steely Dan's "Peg" but I know that I was very young, that it immediately became one of my favorite songs and that it has remained so ever since. Only later did I fully understand the technical mastery of the song, as detailed in this video:
Prince often contrasts "real music by real musicians" with the artificial, lifeless, synthesized sounds that too many pop stars rely on now. One of the things that I most like about Prince and about Steely Dan is that they are craftsmen and perfectionists--but as a child I just enjoyed the catchy melody of "Peg" and the way that the voices and instruments are layered on top of each other. For some odd reason, a memory sticks out in my mind of "Peg" being used one time in the early 1980s on "Entertainment Tonight" as the background music when that day's celebrity birthdays were mentioned. I also remember trying to figure out exactly what the lyrics mean; what is a "pin shot" and what does the "favorite foreign movie" have to do with anything? All I grasped as a child is that the song seemed somehow simultaneously upbeat and wistful, perhaps suggesting that Peg had become a star but lost something during that process.
A new "Peg" memory formed when De La Soul sampled the "I know I'll love you better" refrain in their song "Eye Know":
Erika Klotz and I listened to the "Aja" CD during our tour of Troy, Michigan and "Peg" was one of the songs that played as we journeyed from the Lloyd A. Stage Nature Center to Barnes & Noble. Many memories and images now collide when I hear "Peg"--grooving to the song without understanding its meaning, learning more about Steely Dan and their attention to detail, hearing the De La Soul sample (which then brings to mind various memories of my high school and college years), the great "Making of 'Peg'" video and the newest memory: riding around Troy with my friend Erika (which reminds me of how much my mindset changed during the summer/fall of 2012). One song takes me on a whirlwind tour of my childhood, my young adult years and my current life; the song has always been the same, yet the ways that I perceive it (and myself) have changed over the years, as have my feelings about the various memories that flood to the surface the instant I hear those distinctive first few bars.
"Brass in Pocket" by The Pretenders is another song that elicits a wide range of memories:
I liked the song as an eight year old when it first hit the charts, so hearing it takes me back to being a second grader--which evokes a host of both personal memories and also memories of things that were happening in the world at that time, ranging from rooting passionately for the "Kardiac Kids" Cleveland Browns team to watching Walter Cronkite talk about the Iranian hostage crisis that dominated the news for more than a year (yes, I followed international politics as an eight year old). I remember Faye Grant covering "Brass in Pocket" during an episode of "Greatest American Hero," which was one of my favorite TV shows at that time (her version is overdubbed with something random on the show's DVDs because of licensing issues). Shortly before I traveled to Michigan, I heard "Brass in Pocket" while I was working out but this time it not only conjured up childhood memories: the lyric about "driving/Detroit leaning" had a special meaning, heightening my anticipation about my upcoming trip and the experiences I might have during that weekend.
Sometimes a single word can bring forth many memories; "Ostend" used to conjure images of early 20th century chess tournaments but now it also makes me think of Marvin Gaye--and Gaye can be connected back to Three Levels of Time through his song "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," a powerful lament about some of the environmental issues Hayes explored:
Gaye's reference to mercury poisoning brings to mind David Seltzer's Prophecy, a novel that I read not long after I read Three Levels of Time--and the way that a train of thought can zip around from Ostend to Marvin Gaye to Harold Hayes to David Seltzer conjures up "Kull Wahad," a phrase from Dune that is translated as "I am profoundly stirred!" That phrase caught Erika's eye when I showed her the "Terminology of the Imperium" appendix in Dune, which brings everything back full circle to the memory of listening to "Peg" on the way to Barnes & Noble. Such connections between seemingly disparate memories and concepts are fascinating and add texture to one's life but, while it is fun to remember and reminisce, it is also important to savor the present moment as well:
When we're young, we dream about being old. We sit beneath trees and dream the days away. We dream about the future, about how much better it will be when we can drive, when we can get a job and spend money on whatever we want. We can't wait until our parents are no longer around to say we can't eat ice cream for dinner. We want to get out of our hometown. We want to look upon the whole world, mouth agape in ripe wonderment. But don't worry, we say, one day our lives will be so much better. One day, we tell ourselves in the shade of that tree, we will have freedom.
When we're old, we dream about being young. During our daily commute to work, we reminisce about the past. We look back on the days when we could afford to just dream the whole day away. As we idle in that traffic, our seatbelts slightly pinching our waist, we long for the days when our parents cooked us a hot, healthy meal every night. We miss when the cul-de-sac was the whole world, when the forest across the street was a dark, foreign land just begging to be explored. We want to look upon the world once again with mouth agape, filled with the raw wonderment of youth. What happened, we ask ourselves, our lives used to be so much simpler. What happened, we ponder in that hot car, we used to have so much freedom.
I wish that there were a time in our lives, maybe only a passing moment, when we are perfectly, fiercely content with the present; when we are looking neither backward nor forward nor inward; when we are just looking around.
The soundtrack of a life evolves as anticipation and memory combine to enrich familiar lyrics and melodies, but, even though it is exciting to think about the future and even though it can be enjoyable to reminisce about the past, it is important to be fully present in the present, to appreciate the good things in your life instead of thinking that the best has already happened or is yet to come.
Labels: Brass in Pocket, De La Soul, Donald Fagen, Erika Klotz, Eye Know, Harold T. P. Hayes, Lewis Mumford, Michael McDonald, Otto Frankel, Peg, Pretenders, Steely Dan, Three Levels of Time, Walter Becker
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