May 17, 2014

Saturday Morning Essay: The Eternal Now & Other Pointless Experiences

Brought to you by Peet's Colombia Supremo

Events in life arranged themselves in such a way a couple of days ago that I took a round-trip voyage to San Francisco from Larkspur Landing aboard a Golden Gate Ferry.  The trip over was mid-day; the return was during commute hours.  The ferries now are high speed catamarans which can traverse the waters behind the Tiburon Peninsula, cross the Raccoon Straits between Tiburon and Angel Island, and sail to the lee of Alcatraz to the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street in about 30 minutes.

More than twenty-five years ago I used the Larkspur ferry as my usual commute to work.  I had an office at One Market Plaza (the taller of the two sand-colored buildings pictured above in my own photo).  I once calculated that I made about 2,500 crossings during those commuting years. A ticket cost about two bucks, versus the $9.50 fare charged the usual working-age commuter now.  Parking was free and easily available.  It now costs a couple of bucks to park, and the lot is jammed.  Parking is arranged through a smart phone app.  It can be reliably assumed that the two bucks is a teaser rate designed to get people used to paying to park where they used to leave their cars for free.  In a year or two, I'm sure it will  cost five bucks, then seven, then ten.

What I can remember about commuting is that after the initial adventure of the experience wore off, I settled into finding a comfortable seat where I could read the San Francisco Chronicle in the morning and work the crossword puzzle, then read the Examiner in the evening and solve its.  I didn't look at the view; I had seen the view after a few crossings, and it was more trouble than it was worth.  In retrospect, that was a silly way of looking at things.

I came to recognize a few regulars on my usual schedule.  There was one woman I regularly saw who wore stylish business attire, low heels, her flouncy auburn hair blowing in the Marin breeze as she walked briskly to the boat.  I think she was a lawyer in a big firm somewhere in the Embarcadero.  I surmised from the regularity of her habits, her trim body, the big chunk of ice on her left ring finger, that she was a well-married and highly competent professional who had probably gone to Stanford Law School and had found life a series of confident triumphs.  She was pretty without being glamorous, and it was always reassuring to see such an attractive person using the same public amenity as myself.  I still see her from time to time at the market near my home where I drop in occasionally to spend more for food than is at all reasonable.  She's aged, like me, and I don't think she works anymore.  She has a couple of grown daughters I see her with.  I never learned her name, and I've never uttered a word to her.  I simply remember her.

I don't remember much else besides, as far as the ferry-riding years are concerned.  All told, with the waiting, the boarding, the voyages themselves, I imagine I spent about 3,000 hours in Golden Gate Ferry commuting.  In those days the boats were lumbering single-hulled craft which took at least 45 minutes to cross the Bay.  I can remember the woman I have described walking ahead of me one day, briefcase in hand, her auburn hair bouncing.  But the memory is only of a few seconds.  I cannot remember a single word, or a single clue, of the thousand or more crosswords I worked.  I don't remember any conversations aboard the boat.  There were no shipboard romances.  Nothing really happened, as far as I can remember.

I once wrote a short story about this elusive quality of memory, about how the mind works when it "recalls" something.  Things done repetitively, like commuting, like making coffee, like getting ready for work, like work itself, do not really register.  When we remember them, all that we do is to conjure a few representative flashes of memory that we allow to stand in for the generality of the experience we are recalling.

It's fairly obvious that the brain evolved to be exquisitely attuned to the present moment.  The purpose of memory is to retain survival skills and to remember danger signals, not to act as some sort of DVR of what happened long ago.  So a wiser course in riding the Golden Gate Ferry would have been to stand out on the fantail on every crossing and take the brisk bay wind full in the face, feeling the salt spray churned up by the plunging bow.  It made no sense to deal with the time that was passing by engaging in distractions.  Any way of dealing with life's passing moments that elevates a given moment over another is based on an illusion.  Once lived and forgotten, all moments are equally pointless.  As they happen, all are equally valuable.