Personal Eras for Long-term Perspective
23rd month of 5th era 2020-03-08 (?) · 1967 words · 10 min

What does "Nth month of Nth era" mean?

Privately, I sometimes measure my life not in years, but in 9-year/108-month periods I have variously called lifetimes, kalpas, or eras.

I decided to change this site to publicly display dates in that era system. Since blog posts aren't newspaper articles, I don't think it's very useful to give them a precise publication date, but I still do that anyway, and you can see them by touching or mousing-over an era date.

Since eras begin and end on my birthday - April the 18th - the months of a era begin and end on the 18th of the calendar months. So in 1982, April the 18th to May the 17th was the first month of my first era, and May the 18th to June the 17th was the second month of my first era, and so on until my 9th birthday, in 1991, which marks the transition from the 108th month of my first era to the first month of my second era.

Why measure your life with a different calendar?

Everyone does that, it's called your "age," a word that can be synonymous with "era." Only people born January 1st have years which change exactly when the common era year does, and everyone sometimes considers the span of time when they were a particular age, rather than when the common era year was a certain number.

Why measure your life with a calendar of unusual units?

Because it prompts me to think about the time being measured slightly more.

I enjoy using uncommon but otherwise convenient intervals of time. For example I will rarely set a fifteen-minute timer when I could set a one-thousand-second timer instead. I find it slightly funny, and a reminder of how all measurements are equally arbitrary, and that's enough of a reason...but then I started to believe they gave me a better "feel" of the consistent relative lengths of different times, which is something I've always found difficult.

Or here's an example less tied to my ADHD: many traditional East Asian lunisolar calendars divide the year into twenty-four solar terms: periods marked by solar ecliptic traversing a particular fifteen-degree section of the sky, divided into three pentads of five degrees. Of course terms and pentads periods have different lengths in days as the seasons change and the speed of the sun across the ecliptic changes with them, but that's not so strange: first of all, years and days themselves are not of consistent length as the solar system ages, and secondly, the point of the terms and pentads is to be seasons.

Each term is named after some natural event or quality which the farmers of (in the case of the oldest example) ancient northern China would have associated with that time of year. As I write these words, it's the beginning of the term 穀雨, Gǔyǔ, or "Grain Rain," whose first pentad is 萍始生, "Duckweed begins to sprout". April showers, etc.

I learned all this from "small seasons", a website that describes the terms of the Japanese solar term calendar, provides Google and iCal calendars to help you mark the changing of those seasons, and also gives a case for why non-farmers should mark them:

Living in cities, most of us don’t need to know if the rains are late this year, or when the bushwarblers will start warbling.

But it's nice to have a more fine-grained way of thinking about the year; dividing such a big span of time into four big seasons feels really clumsy. Thinking in two week sekki seems to match how my life and environment changes a lot better.

I wouldn't say that thinking in nine-year eras matches my life better, but I do think it helps me judge my past and plan my future better at the scale of a nine-year period.

I've always struggled to consider and compare periods of my life longer than a year, and to imagine how my life might change in that time. Eras help me overcome those difficulties.

Also, when I use them to date my writing, I think it helps me judge "who I was" when I wrote certain things.

Why nine years instead of five or ten?

Well, any number would be equally arbitrary, but ten especially I find less helpful than nine.

We commonly already think of our life in ten-year periods, for example our "twenties" and "thirties". But I never found these divisions convincing: the days and years I turned 10, 20, and 30, did not stand out to me.

And the real problem is that when I try to think of "my twenties," the room suddenly gets very crowded: I start thinking about everything I associate with people being in their twenties. I think of what my friends have told me about their twenties, and what books and films have told me are the unusual and universal experiences of the twenties, and what, in sum, I think other people would expect to have or have not happened to me in my twenties, and how I should or should not feel about it.

For me at least, decades invite distractions. As with my three-thousand-second timers, a common unit of time is useful for communicating and coordinating work with others, but if the work is private and internal, I think you're better off with idiosyncracies.

I say never be bothered by using an arbitrary unit of measurement: they're all equally arbitrary. Seconds themselves could just as easily be 9,192,631,780 times the unperturbed ground-state hyperfine transition frequency of the caesium-133 atom instead of 9,192,631,770, as long as everyone used the same coefficient. The year could just as easily start when a major nearby river floods, and the day when the sun sets rather than when it rises.

Finally, I like that nine years is 108 months, since it's almost but not quite 100: it's very easy for me to visualize where in an era a numbered month is, but the extra 8 helps me remember how arbitrary the "roundness" of numbers is. Considering each month as it passes helps me feel more aware of the regular passage of time.

But really, why nine?

This system is, much like my life itself, a pile of pleasant coincidences which now I feel compelled to stick with, not because I think it was meant to be, but because I find it pretty funny so far.

Before and during my childhood, a piece of trivia was going around: no cell in the human body lives longer than seven years. When a person ages seven years, every part of their living tissue has in some sense been replaced, or renewed, or however you want to think about it.

Of course some pretty important parts of our body are not living tissue, but for some reason we don't strongly identify with them. I always remember a bit in Tim Powers' Last Call: a character who is terrified of death, and is also very obese, is told by someone well-meaning "Don't worry, I know there's a thin person inside you waiting to get out." Barely containing his rage, he tells them to get out of his sight and stay out of it, or they'll briefly and painfully regret it.

Without spoiling the story, the joke is that she's more right than she knows: there is a thin person inside him, inside all of us, waiting to get out, but most of us aren't in a hurry to meet our inner thin person.

Here's how a comic I used to enjoy put it:

A crying child says to her mother, "Daddy says there's a skeleton inside me." "I'm afraid it's true," she replies, turning to reveal a devilish grin.  "In fact, you could say there's a skeleton in all of us!"

Anyway, the seven year thing.

I remember that the second or third time I heard the idea, it was in a short story in a fairly twee collection of science fiction called Microcosmic Tales. This story was a conversation between a man and a woman, who either were married or just cohabitating. The woman announces suddenly that she's leaving him, because she isn't the same person who he had a relationship with: that person has gradually been replaced, cell by cell, over the past few years.

The man is shocked by this, then at turns confused, argumentative, pleading...he tries all sorts of arguments, which she deflects expertly, until he finally realizes how to salvage the situation.

He says something like: "Well, if you're right, then I'm a completely different person too. Nice to meet you! Would you like to sit and have breakfast with me? I'd really like to get to know you better. We might get along quite well."

And the story ends with her accepting this. Leaving aside the questions of whether it was better for him to live with someone who would behave the way she did, it's a sweet and inspiring story for any of us. People do change, and we're often afraid of that, but maybe it should excite us. A river wouldn't be more pleasant if it didn't flow.

I haven't even thought about that story for many years.

Ah, years! The seven years! Right, so, it's all down to a fault of memory.

In the year 2000, when calendars were on everyone's mind, I graduated high school, and my mind also naturally turned to shifts in the phases of human life. As I wrestled with a fear I didn't have a name for yet, for some reason, I mis-remembered the seven years story as being about nine years, and was struck that the second nine-year period of my life had ended just then, at a time of real, material transition.

Then and now, I just thought that was an amusing coincidence. I knew that in different places and at different times, there was no necessary station on the path to adulthood at age 18.

Nine years later I had flunked out of college twice, worked in a lumber yard, a restaurant, a refrigerated warehouse, and a comic book store, graduated from a different college, and started working in the field of Web Nonsense. In that time, the idea of nine-year lifetimes kept coming back to me. Especially in the darker moments, I took comfort by thinking that whatever had happened, my life had just begun, that there was time left to accomplish more, and that my efforts and experiences had added up to something no better or worse than what everyone else had gone through in the same span of time.

That comfort has stayed with me ever since, perhaps because the fear it allayed also stayed with me. We keep blankets because we know that winter will return.

Finally, incredibly, it wasn't until last year that I noticed there were 108 months in 9 years. This shocked me because, somehow, I knew that Buddhist rosaries often have 108 beads on them.

I immediately tried to find why that is, and I failed: the meaning of the tradition is disputed. Maybe it's because some canons only include 108 texts, or because experienced phenomena can be grouped into 108 categories, or because there are 108 types of destructive emotions which trap us in our suffering.

But something I did learn is that Buddhist temples in Japan will often mark the beginning of the new year by sounding their bells 108 times.

I look back on all that and ask myself, laughing, how could I not stick with it now?

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