Andy Schmookler: Mystified by time and our place in It

Andy Schmookler

My love of old movies frequently puts me in touch with how hard it is for me to grasp – at gut level – the reality of time and our place in it.

The combination of the TCM channel and a DVR enables me to take regular breaks in which I dip into some wonderful old film, picking up where I left off, as one might do with a book.

Here’s the delicious Roman Holiday, with Gregory Peck being his usual handsome, sterling self, and Audrey Hepburn, who could hardly be more lovely and fetching.

As I watch them, I also realize that these beautiful people have long been dead.

Similarly with another film I lately watched from the late 30s – this one named Holiday (without the “Roman”) starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. I’ve seen them both in many films over the years, but never have they seemed so charming and alive.

Except of course, they are not alive.

Lately I’ve been watching Paul Newman in Exodus. I was a big fan of Newman’s back in the 60s, and here he is in the beginning of that decade, trim and fit and impressive with his blue eyes.

Then I recall how he looked shortly before he died almost a decade ago, gaunt and wheel-chair bound as cancer drained his life away.

How can that be?

Part of me knows, of course, that time passes and never stops for us. And I know the human life-span is finite. Those who are young once become old, if they can manage that, and then they disappear. But part of me is amazed again and again at that discovery.

The movies are an especially powerful challenge in that respect. It was not that long ago that people had no way of seeing others in all their previous glory–except in their memory. One might recall friends or relatives as they were long ago. But one could not see them right before our eyes, in all their vigor and vibrancy, while at the same time seeing them in the flesh in their decrepitude, or knowing that “dust to dust” has taken them away forever.

The movies are an especial challenge, at least for me, for other reasons as well. For starters, the movies generally give us exceptionally beautiful people to look at. But that’s compounded by the magic of the movies: at least for me, they constitute a special realm of the imagination, and there’s a part of me that finds it hard to comprehend that the people who take me away into those magic realms are not like the immortal gods on Olympus, but are really only mere mortals like everyone else, swept along on the same inexorable current of time.

But it isn’t only the celebrities whose temporariness is hard for me to fully absorb the reality of of our temporariness, of the inevitability of “who is” becoming “who was.”

My brother and I have lived long enough that there is no one left in our family of our parents’ generation. They and the whole world we grew up in has gone the way of time.

Of course, this is how it has always been. And I’ve understood it rationally since I was five. But at some level I still don’t understand it.

Someone might interpret this as being all about my not accepting my own mortality. It’s true, I don’t. I entered my 70s a year ago, but in some core part of my consciousness I think of myself as the guy I was in my 20s, when I solidified into most of my adult identity. In my own sense of self, I’m not the type to be “elderly.” That’s what Old People are.

But even if I were granted immortality, and decent health to go with it, I would still be struggling to wrap my mind around time, and how time carries along toward the waterfall everyone else that I know, care about, love–or watch, rapt, as they do their magic on the silver screen.

Time is just plain strange. Did it have a beginning, and if so what was “before” that? And if not, how could we have traversed an infinite course of time to get to this “now”?

Five is when such questions first boggled my mind, and their incomprehensibility distressed and infuriated me. But at that time, I’d not watched anyone age, nor lost anyone, so the way time drags us humans along didn’t mystify or bother me.

It does now.

I love how some old movies –Goodbye Mr. Chips and some World War II movies come to mind – that end by showing us the faces of all the people who our protagonist and we have seen along the way, but are there no longer. The richness of our experience is recapitulated. But with it comes the poignancy of our loss.

Andy Schmookler is an award-winning author, and was the Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012. His newly published book is “What We’re Up Against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World – And How We Can Defeat It.”