In a Teacup
(Σε ένα φλυτζάνι τσαγιού)
“How fast is an “instant”? Do we know?” My companion held forth at our usual morning coffee. “My instant is defined by the pace of my life. Anything that has happened all at once (to me) without apparent passage of time is “instantaneous”. Neuroscientists tell us that events which share the same ten millisecond time frame — one one-hundredth of a second — appear to have happened at the same time.” He pushed his empty coffee cup off the counter and it smashed on the floor. “If we could but zoom in, as it were, in time, we would see a whole chain of events beginning with the instant the cup made contact with the floor tile and ending with the full dissolution of its essential cup-ness. On the other hand, if we were to zoom … out, so to speak, to a different time scale, all that has happened in this entire morning might appear to be but an instant, and the poor coffee cup (for which we must pay, now, David; see to it) such a minuscule part as to be invisible; our years might fly past like moments. Reminds me of a situation I advised in before I knew you. A number of … similar … features.”
My friend Mahto needs no introduction; his deeds precede him no matter where (or when) I tell the tale. This one was different, though.
“It was a foggy winter morning,” he began.
We were enjoying that peculiarly New England seacoast phenomenon of bitter cold and icy fog without a hint of snow, then February brought the rest of the season; thirty-four inches in one night. While we were digging out from the mess, another twelve inches fell.
It was Mahto’s practice to clear the way into his garage, from which he could step directly into his kitchen. It pleased him, I think, to see the messenger struggling through chest-deep snow to the main door.
“You’re here about the weather, I suppose? Oh, yes, shake off just there. You can step out through the kitchen, it’s an easier heading.
“Do you have my packet from the Commander? Knew it would be coming with weather like this.”
“You mean to say you were consulted on the weather, Mahto? You’re an electrical engineer!”
“Yes, but I have some small skills speaking the Tsageira dialect, and a much better understanding of their culture than most,” he said.
The packet indicated a sort of pocket storm just off the coast, bearing down on Portsmouth in an unfriendly way, strictly against the prevailing winds. Definitely looked as thought the Tsageira were off on a tear. I gathered up my gear and pulled on my cleated hikers. “Mr. C has made provision for me, I assume? I don’t have the rig to get up to that mountain in this weather.
“I can drive myself, thank you. Tsageirai don’t like unannounced visitors.” And so I drove into the snowy evening. It was bad, you know. Took seven hours to get to the base of Teapot Mountain, then another three hours on a snowmobile to get up to the meeting … place.
I set up my equipment in the howling gale and began the transmission.
“There are no radio towers up there, Mahto. I would have seen them. There’s nothing at all up there that would survive a winter storm for long.”
“Ah, David, you are taking the short-time view. The Tageira live wide in time, far wider than we do. Imagine explaining your notion of time, of urgency, to a Sequoia or a Bristlecone Pine. They were old when Homer was a boy. To them a day is like but one wave on the shore, a season like a cool evening. I had to communicate, loud and long. It took most of the night.”
I bundled up and waited for a response. I’d explained our problem with the storm coming in and asked for their help. (They sometimes helped if I could phrase the request in a humble enough way. It was hard to show that we existed, much less had value enough to be worthy of assistance.) Their response startled me when it came. “Tempest? In a teacup?”
It took me a few moments. Turns out the little storm was a result of them stirring their tea with a little … too much vigor. Metaphorically.
“Wait. … Just, wait. You mean we are nothing — our whole planet is nothing to them but a coffee table?”
“Oh, it seems there was a little bit of an accident, and someone knocked their cup off the table. Metaphorically. The broom is on the floor.”
“The storm was the broom?” I marveled at the thought.
“No, no. You misunderstand. The amount of time after the crash of the cup to the … “floor” … and before the last chip falls roughly corresponds to the rise of civilization as we know it. I merely asked them to delay, as it were, cleaning up the mess.”