EDITOR’S NOTE: This article first appeared on Nov. 30, 1995. Here’s a fresh one to put on the fridge. Michael Weinstein, features editor
I need a pane of slow glass, 14-year thickness.
Slow glass appears in a haunting science-fiction story I read years ago.
Slow glass, in this story, was an invention of the near future. In normal glass, light passes through in a multimillionth of a second. In slow glass, light had to travel through an intricate molecular labyrinth of crystal spirals so thick and complex that it took hours, days, months or years to shine through the other side of the pane.
Cheap slow glass was only 12 hours off, and people who worked at night would have it installed in their homes, so the sun would shine to suit them. They would sleep all day in starry darkness.
Medium slow glass could be a season or two off. You would look through it on the sultriest days of summer and see the snowdrifts and icicles of last winter. It was marvelously refreshing.
The rarest, costliest slow glass was up to 15 or 20 years thick, or more. Events of years past would find their way through the tiny, mazey, translucent spirals of the glass and glow brightly at last, on the other side, relaying images that struck the opposite face of the pane decades earlier.
In the story, a man travels to the countryside with his wife, shopping for slow glass. They reach a glass farm, where panes are exposed, catching the skies and clouds – everything that happens in front of the surface of the glass – for resale later, years later. This lonely farm produces some of the best slow glass in the entire region.
The owner of the glass farm is distracted. He keeps looking in the picture window of his house, where his wife and child are playing. He waves off the would-be buyers, telling them to look, make up their minds, choose, decide on a price when they’re through. He goes back to sit on the porch and stare at the picture window.
Pause. I will tell you what happens in the end presently.
I wish I had some slow glass. My children, 9 and 14, are speeding up, growing faster than I can index them in my memory. They went away for several weeks this summer, on a vacation with their mom and grandparents. And when they returned, I saw the difference. It was as if I had closed my eyes and slept and missed something irretrievable.
They are irretrievable. Every breath, every minute, every joke and jump, every shout and kick of a pajama-clad leg in front of the TV, every Christmas smile – all these flash past, all these singular, startling things happen and are squandered practically the moment they appear, like tiny fireworks.
I read in a National Geographic article one time that our idea of “the present” is, at most, about six minutes long. We dwell in this little moving bubble, whose diameter is 360 seconds or so. It is all we can take in, all we can grasp, and the far end of it is always being lost, vaporing away into an irrecoverable past.
Snapshots are one thing. Videotapes are another. I suppose we have more means of saving baby pictures than any human beings in history. Yet they are all inferior to memory, memory that recalls how the wind blew, how the sea smelled, how the trees rustled, how innocent and infinitely appealing our children were, as children. And memory itself is so frail.
As I write this, Matthew’s and Noah’s school vacation ends a few hours from now, and they are in the middle of that one-last-fling, let-the-heavens-fall joyous madness that sparks the last few glorious hours of summer. They want to do everything at once, wallow in pleasure, watch this, play that, run around all over creation.
I remember what an infinity a summer vacation used to be, what a wealth of time a hundred days was. Their vacation, they tell me excitedly, was thrilling, magnificent, “awesome!” It was a whole little lifetime of excitement.
This same summer, to my own dull senses, seemed to last about 3 1/2 weeks. It was pleasant, but it did not possess that special, second-after-second brilliance that makes youth so diamond-precious.
Time is a currency that is constantly being debased, inflated, cheapened. I have heard that it has to do with the heart rate. Older people’s hearts beat more slowly, and so time shrinks and telescopes inward for us the older we get. Children, with their lively hearts doing rapid, rat-a-tat drum rolls, have longer days and summers. A single afternoon can be an epic.
I attended a trial once in which an old man was asked to testify about what month certain events happened.
“I’m not sure. It seems like there’s a new moon every week now,” he said. The judge himself laughed.
Slow glass: At the end of the story, the young buyer discovers why the glass farmer has been staring at the picture window so intently.
It was because his wife and child were dead, he said, killed in an accident years earlier. The pane of slow glass had been installed in his house before then, and the images it contained were from the years when he still had a family. Now all he possessed of them was that pane of slow glass, and its images would be exhausted soon. They had only a little time to run before the room would be empty forever.
That was why he stared so fixedly at the slow glass, why he treasured every fleeting image that shone in its remembering surface.
How can my thimble of memory contain everything my two boys have been, and are becoming? If only I could see it all again, and pay more attention the second time! That is why I need a pane of slow glass, 14-year thickness.
The science fiction story alluded to is “Light of Other Days,” by Bob Shaw. Browning died on Dec. 30, 2006, in Gainesville, Fla. He was 58 and was survived by sons Matthew and Noah.
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