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Perfect Present

My father knew a man called Mr Gilmour who was an engineer who finally retired somewhere in the late 1960s. In those days you used a slide rule to calculate. (Even in the early 1970s Columbia had a programmable desktop computer made by Olivetti that required you to insert a cassette tape whenever it needed to evaluate a sine or cosine.)

Sometime around 1973 or so, Hewlett Packard produced the first programmable handheld calculator — you could program it in a sort of assembly code, move things from register to register, evaluate logs and sines, and so on. Mr Gilmour, probably close to 80 years old, went out and bought the $1000 HP calculator he’d always longed for in some form. It was a lot of money, even more so in SA Rand. One evening, during my vacation back in South Africa, he demonstrated it to me. It was amazing. But Mr Gilmour was no longer a practicing engineer and he had no real use for it, other than to demonstrate its miracles. His present and his past wishes overlapped but didn’t really coexist any more. It was a little sad, though I don’t think he thought of it that way.

The NY Times last week had an article about Eckhart Tolle, a new age guru in the tradition of Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, Baghwan Shree Rajneesh and various Buddhists and who claim that nothing exists except the present, and if you can remain aware of that then all your problems are solved. I looked at Tolle’s book in Barnes and Noble, where it’s selling furiously, and it’s not as bad as it might sound. (Tolle himself doesn’t reveal much about his past, but if what he writes is sensible it shouldn’t matter what he actually did, you could argue.) Anyhow, it’s nice work if you can do it, but who can? Animals without too much difficulty, young children, but not adult humans. And even if you learn to, what about those people around you who can’t and are still thinking about the past and future?

I thought about this on an 18.5 hour flight to Singapore today. Getting on an airplane for a long transcontinental flight (on which you don’t try to use Word or Excel) is the closest synthetic way I know of for living briefly in the present Within a few hours you lose all track of time, the past recedes a long way, and the future doesn’t yet loom. In a very short time you get into a sort of cocooned limbo, cut off from normal life. It’s amazing. But then it’s over.

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