Time, Umbrella sellers, Danaus Plexippus, life-guards & a Prince

In a recent posting, Stephanie Miller, VP of Strategic Services tells the following anecdote: “It’s a fascinating phenomenon here in New York City. As soon as it starts raining, there magically appears on nearly every street corner a gentleman selling umbrellas. When the sun is out, these men are no where to be seen. They must be lurking somewhere, watching the seismic reports.”

I admit – this captivating image of umbrella men sprouting up like mushrooms comes in stark contrast to the immediate-answer-to-immediate-needs service these umbrella sellers actually provide, and yet, it got m thinking about the Danaus Plexippus. Each November, millions of Danaus plexippus, or Monarch butterflies, go on a 4500 kilometre trek from North America to Mexico, covering about 80 kilometres each day and make about 40 stopovers. Once in Mexico’s volcanic highlands, they lay their eggs, and die. On March 21, Northern-Hemisphere’s spring Equinox, their offspring will begin the long journey back to Canada.

The most interesting aspect of this trek is that scientists have no idea why the butterflies undertake their arduous trip. Local, pre-Hispanic, Nahuatl people of Mexico believed that the Monarchs were souls of dead children returning to the home of their ancestors, while the Toltecs, associated the butterfly with the power of the sun.

According to National Geographic “Four to five generations separate the monarch populations that make the migration, so the butterflies that make the trek to Mexico are the great, great grandchildren of the previous generation to have made it.” In other words, they’d never seen Mexico before – they fly there totally on instinct, spending their entire lifetime en-route to, or from, Mexico. What is a lifetime for these butterflies? What is time? Indian poet, playwright, essayist and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) said “The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.” Umbrella sellers’ time is rainstorm-bound while the Monarch’s time is distance, direction and task bound. Seasonal lifeguards in Hastings Borough, on the South-Eastern part of the UK, will be employed fulltime on the Hastings & St Leonards foreshore between May and mid September, then it’s back to job interviews.

In the website accompanying his book “Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything” James Gleick tells the story (urban legend?) about the Russian wonder machine, designed to enable people a full night’s sleep in two hours – the idea was to ‘free’ more time for non-sleeping activities. This ‘service’ is brilliantly observed in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s masterpiece “The Little Prince

-Good morning, said the little prince.
-Good morning, said the merchant.

This was the merchant who sold pills that had been invented to quench thirst. You need only swallow one pill a week, and you would feel no need of anything to drink.

-Why are you selling those? Asked the little prince
-Because they save a tremendous amount of time, said the merchant. Computations have been made by experts. With these pills, you save fifty-three minutes in every week.
-And what do I do with those fifty-three minutes?
-Anything you like…
-As for me, said the little prince to himself, if I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water. (p. 87)

Maybe time, as seen by the Monarch butterfly, the umbrella seller and the British seasonal lifeguard is measured and seasonal (in other words, it appears in spurts and pulses) so that, essentially, rest (non-action) is built into the process, while Russian sleep-savers and consumers of the merchant’s wonder pills only get to push an increasingly number of activities into the same number of waking hours?

This is how James Gleick describes this breathtaking speed of living:

“You are bored doing nothing, so you go for a drive. You are bored just driving, so you turn on the radio. You are bored just driving and listening to the radio, so you make a call on the cellular phone. You realise that you are now driving, listening to the radio, and talking on the phone, and you are still bored. Then you reflect that it would be nice if you had time, occasionally, just to do nothing. Perhaps you have a kind of sense organ that can adjust to the slowness, after being blinded by the speed.”

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