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Life is like a microwave...

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Just now, after I pressed “quick min” twice, I turned away. That’s too long to stand, watching the countdown. I can’t stomach letting 120 seconds pass while I gaze, mindless, at the clock. Even 30 seconds seem like a stretch. But some days I’m reckless, and I watch the numbers change, marking the seconds remaining until the bell signals that the steaming plate is ready. The seconds pass, forever gone.

 

When I once made what I called “airline eggs,” I watched them cook, a pale yellow with green
flecks of dill and parsley, in a flat white bowl. The eggs puffed like a sad
soufflé in almost no time at all.

Ten digitally measured
seconds go quickly; six such seconds leave no time to think. Sometimes I punch
in three 10-second intervals, one right after the other, to make the time seem
to pass faster. Each marks one revolution of the turntable.

For me, the illusion is
similar on December 31st as I watch the crystal ball descend to signal the
beginning of the next year. The last few seconds of the countdown seem to speed
by more quickly than the first.

Tiny intervals add up. I’ve
watched the green flash of seconds falling away and I remember when digital
clocks were mechanical. Each minute and hour was marked by the appearance of a
new panel dropping into place. And before the exact time was sent
electronically to cell phones and cable television devices, you could dial
(yes, dial) TI-6-1212 and listen to a recording of the time, provided in 10
second intervals:  “The time
is exactly twelve-oh-one-and-ten-seconds.”

By setting the microwave
timer I’m watching two minutes pass. That’s insufficient time for me to make my
bed. That takes about three minutes: to pull up the covers, to turn the sheet
down over the blankets, to smooth the sheets and blankets, to fluff the pillows
and arrange them over the sheets. I’m not taking into consideration fixing the
bedspread under the pillows.

Assuming I make the bed
six days a week (changing the linens on the seventh), that’s 18 minutes a week:
three hours in 10 weeks; in a year (with two weeks’ vacation), 15 hours
— almost two days of work. In 10 years, that’s 150 hours. I figure I’ve
spent 900 hours making my bed so far. If I’m awake 16 hours in an average day,
that’s equivalent to at least 56 days of my conscious life.

I knew someone, now gone,
who, when asked how he was, habitually replied that he was “taking
nourishment” and managing “the minutiae of life.” If the making
of a bed falls into that category, the lifetime sum of daily minutiae is
considerable.

Having done the math I’m
awash in feelings, part despair, part rage that I could have spent so much of
my life in such a meaningless fashion. But then I realize that I’m squandering
more time in useless regret. This isn’t self-pity, is it? After all, it’s not
my life only that’s piddled away.
If you’re in your late 20s,
you’ve already spent about 18 days of wakeful time making your bed — I haven’t
calculated time spent waiting in line at the supermarket or the post office.

Had I not spent 56 days
making my bed, maybe I would have re-read Thoreau [“Time
is but the stream I go fishing in. I drink at it, but while I drink I see the
sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. It’s thin current slides away, but
eternity remains.”] and Henri Bergson, probably in a good translation. What
would they have made of my standing near the microwave, watching its countdown,
marking time?

Though I listened many
times to the spiel about the Kitchen of the Future when I was a kid, spending
idle summer afternoons at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, I can’t remember the
word microwave being used, though it must have been. That was a microwave being
touted — an oven, not yet
available, that would cook food in a tiny fraction of the time required in the
homes of the l950s. After I’d heard the presentation — it was free
entertainment — I’d go over to a glass case where I’d stand and watch ball
bearings drop from a height and bounce up through a revolving hoop and into a
hole. Bounce…bounce…bounce. Perfectly timed, the balls always went through,
and, although I had no interest in the automobiles on display, I sensed that
the perfection of the timing of the ball bearings was associated with the cars’
precision engineering.

Only now, as I consider
how the microwave’s digital countdown has affected my sense of time’s passing,
do I see the irony of my fascination with the bouncing ball bearing, and how it
marked the passage of time without my thinking about it as I watched it happen.
Not even once.

Nonetheless, I noticed a
small blemish on the metal plate where the successive bearings struck. No
single bounce could have been responsible for such a mark. Even as a child, I
knew it was a sign of wear.

On occasion, in addition
to the bouncing ball bearing, another steel ball lay motionless on the floor of
the case. I wondered whether a miniscule defect, a deviation, had been
exaggerated over successive cycles so that a bearing had struck the revolving
hoop and landed, while another continued in its apparently endless cycle of
bouncing. And how and when, by what Great Hand was the machine reset? I myself
never saw a failure. Had someone shaken the case? I played pinball at penny
arcades, was acquainted with “Tilt. Game Over.”

And, au fond, that’s what this is all about (03, 02, 01, 00), having
waited for this bell that’s just rung: An enhanced sense of time passing, life running out moment by moment,
until it’s game over, with or without a Great Cosmic Tilt.
25 February 2010

Miriam N. Kotzin, associate professor of English at Drexel University, co-directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing and teaches creative writing and literature. She is a contributing editor of Boulevard and a founding editor of Per Contra. She is the author of A History of Drexel University (Drexel University, 1983), a collection of flash fiction, Just Desserts (Star Cloud Press, 2010), and two collections of poetry, Reclaiming the Dead (New American Press, 2008), Weights & Measures (Star Cloud Press, 2009), and Taking Stock. Her novel, Cutter’s Vision, is represented by Don Gastwirth.
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