02 September 2011

My Billion

Minor stream of consciousness here: I was reading a brief article on "Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Time" that has been circling the web the past week or so.  The last of these reads:
10. A lifespan is a billion heartbeats. Complex organisms die. Sad though it is in individual cases, it’s a necessary part of the bigger picture; life pushes out the old to make way for the new. Remarkably, there exist simple scaling laws relating animal metabolism to body mass. Larger animals live longer; but they also metabolize slower, as manifested in slower heart rates. These effects cancel out, so that animals from shrews to blue whales have lifespans with just about equal number of heartbeats — about one and a half billion, if you simply must be precise. In that very real sense, all animal species experience “the same amount of time.”
Humans seem to be the exception to this rule; our species is generally allotted something closer to 3 billion heartbeats over a lifespan of roughly 80 years (at least here in the Western world). At any rate, this made me think of Gary Fincke's poem "The Billion Heartbeats of the Mammal" which you owe it to yourself to read.

"Feel this," my father says, guiding my hand
   To the simple braille of his pacemaker.
   "Sixty," he tells me, "over and over
   Like a clock," and I mention the billion
   heartbeats of the mammal, how the lifespan
   Can be rough-guessed by the 800 beats
   Per minute of the shrew, the 200
   Of the house cat, speeding through their billion
   In three years, in twelve. How slowly we act,
   According to our pets. How we are stone
   To the frantic insects. "The hurry-up
   To nowhere," he says, working out the math,
   Busy with wiping down linoleum
   The way he swirled a mop through locker rooms
   Before striding the push broom up and down
   The grain of gym sweep, repeating the moves
   Of twenty kinds of cleaning between ten
   And six-thirty in the high school I used
   Between eight and three-fifteen. He might have
   Been following the Peterson Method
   For care, learning the neat lines and ovals
   Of my mother, who wrote to me, the day
   She died, a perfectly scripted letter,
   Pages of open vowels so nothing
   She said could be misread. And even now,
   In the attic, inside her black notebooks
   Stacked and banded, her carefully copied
   Familiar quotes, the good advice
   Of the writing exercise dating back
   To a hundred lines of ovals, fifty
   Of the properly slanted line. Penciled
   Pages of strict, block printing, the two-space
   Capitals, the touch of the tall letters
   To the roof of lines, my father finding
   By multiplication and division,
   The thirty years of the human, how he is
   Closing in on three billion while I am
   Nearing two. How we are the exception
   To the heartbeat system, taking so long
   To come of age we have time to practice
   The Peterson Method for memory,
   Preserve these things to open up and read.

It occurs to me that being about a month shy of 30, I have just about exhausted my first billion heartbeats.  Here's to the next two billion.

1 comment:

kelly said...

Wow. At first, this idea makes me feel kind of panicky... like "oh my gosh! I need to save those beats! They're slipping away!" But as I keep thinking about it, I find myself in a calmer place. More like, "what will come will come, and that's fantastic." This is life. Some moments are great and others not so much, but it is what it is, dang it. Beat on! Great post, Russ.