Monday, January 01, 2007

Cycles and time

A few months ago my brother and I were sitting around one evening watching the US Open tennis final, and he wondered, what if scoring in tennis were simplified to being the first man to 100 points, period. No games, no sets, no tie-breakers, none of that confusion, just points, and when one player has reached 100, the match is over. It would make more sense and be easier to follow, he pointed out. There would never be any doubt as to who was ahead at any given moment. After thinking it over, though, we concluded that nothing would kill the sport of tennis more readily. The deuces, the mini-games, the key points, the breaks of service, indeed, all of the elements that make tennis fun to watch depend upon the traditional game-set structure. Without them, and without the moments of tension and release that they produce, tennis would be a very dull sport.

We are a cyclical people living in a world of cycles. Although we did not invent the concept of years, seasons, and days – cycles that are mandated by the stars – we have grown dependent upon them. We need them to help us process the passing of time, and to help us order our lives. Imagine if we didn’t have years, if we instead measured time in terms of days, for example. Some days that would be important to remember: 4745, the day at which you can finally get in to a PG-13 movie; 6574, the day at which a girl becomes legal; 7665, the day at which drinking alcohol is no longer illegal; 12775, the day when a woman’s biological clock runs out; 17520, the average age for a mid-life crisis; 23725, the day at which you can begin collecting social security (at the cost of finally having to admit you’re an old man). Counting time in days might have its charm, but what a headache it would be to remember all of those numbers! Give me a cycle, not a line.

Thus, when people tell me there’s nothing special about New Year’s, that it’s just another day, that a New Year’s resolution is no more timely than any other resolution and that if truly worthwhile it should be carried out at its moment of conception, I say wait a minute, that’s simply not true. New Year’s marks the end of one year and the beginning of the next – it represents the ticking of the most significant division of time that we have. If we believe at all in the possibility of change, of new beginnings, of new chapters and new leases, of building new accomplishments upon past ones, then a new year is the most natural time to renew those efforts.

I don’t wish to suggest that the year is the only meaningful unit with which to measure time; the seasons are lovely as well, and they have frequently been an inspiration for music composers, such as for Vivaldi and Piazzolla in their seasons cycles. Medically, the seasons are the most interesting. When checking the mental status of patients, orientation to time is one of the basic measures of cognitive function that we assess. In the hospital, because there are few clocks, no calendars, no clear days or nights, and vital sign and medications schedules pay no attention to daytime-nighttime cycles, disorientation to time is a frequent problem. While we ask about years and months and dates, I find orientation to season to be most telling. If the patient knows the season, I can be reassured that he'll probably be all right. His perception of reality might be somewhat altered, but his fundamental hold on when he's living remains intact.

This is New Year’s Eve, though, and the discussion at hand is one of years, not of seasons. Tomorrow will be the first day of a new voyage of the earth around the sun, and I’m delighted to be here for it. I’d love to let it infuse my own life with fresh energy. To a tennis player, a new set means new life, another chance to fight for a come-from-behind victory. I don’t see why a new year for me should be any different. I have a feeling it's going to be a good one.