This essay appeared Spring 2012 in Issue No. 1 of Offscreen Magazine, a print publication exploring the life and work of people that create websites and apps.
There’s an idea my dad’s been excited about lately. I know he’s excited about it because he brings it up at the dinner table every time I see him. The last time was when my parents were visiting New York with friends from China. I listened to him explain the idea to them, as I have listened to him explain the idea to me when I was in Michigan for the holidays the year prior. And when we were in Shanghai the year before that.
“Let me ask you question,” he’ll start in the drawl of a non-native speaker who knows the words but still sings them to the melody of his birth language, “do you ever have feeling when you travel, your trip is much, much longer in your memory?” I’d think about it, the guests would think about it, and we would inevitably conclude: yes.
“Just my thought,” he’ll continue. He always says “just my thought” before anything he knows is a hunch, an uninformed, unscientifically-proven, unwikipediaed hypothesis. But hunch or not, the words that follow are always spoken with absolute conviction. His eyes light up and his forehead wrinkles and he leans forward, and his mouth is half open and his top teeth are showing and he has a look of sheer amazement on his face.
Dad’s hunch is that when we travel our minds are working in overdrive. We’re learning things, grokking the layout of a new city, seeking novel sights, observing details we would otherwise overlook because we are eager to make the most of a limited time in an unfamiliar place. We pay more attention and record more to our memories, resulting in a richer experience compared to when we rely on established routines, which Dad describes as “you wake up, you have nice breakfast, drive to work and check email, come home, have nice dinner and go to sleep!”
There have been scientific experiments conducted to discover what goes on in our brains when we experience near-death events—like getting hit by a car or falling off a ladder—as if they were happening in slow motion. The findings are in line with Dad’s hunch, suggesting that our perception of time is tied closely to our memory of it, that in those near-death experiences, our survival mechanisms kick in and we become open sieves, paying attention much more than we normally do. When we replay the event in our minds, the density of information stretches the moment out, like an author describing a character in mid-sentence with meticulous prose. Time is less a rigid vase and more an unfired lump of clay, malleable at the hands of experience, better measured by the richness of our memories than any clock or calendar.
Our jobs these days entail remaining stationary in front of a certain kind of machine, one particularly conducive to repetition, particularly apt for non-remembering. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. A pianist sits in front of her machine and a boot-maker in front of his; to become truly skilled at anything requires a certain degree of monotony and repetition, leading to a feeling of “Where did all the time go?” But in our case, we also turn to the same machine for diversion, for breaking free from the tedium. Yes, we are able to travel to distant lands in front of our machine, but it is a travel in a protected bubble, a travel on rails, along railroad towns that have more in common than not. We miss the smell of back alleys that make our skin crawl, the sense of awe atop middle-of-nowhere hills that unroll to the vastness of the earth, the foot-feel of cobbled stone paths that suddenly vanish into dirt. Without such richness, the world at our fingertips is a world by proxy; it is a forgettable world, lost between the putting-on of headphones and the clamping shut of laptop lids.
But I don’t tell Dad any of this. I don’t tell him because I don’t want to dispel its magic by inserting my own. I don’t want him to stop being excited about his idea. I don’t want him to ever stop asking me about it, because every time he asks, it’s a reminder. To make next week longer and more memorable than this one. To make each subsequent year slower than the one before, by going off the rails, opening myself to richer memories. Every time Dad tells me his idea, it’s a reminder to step away from the machine and pay attention to the world.