Monday, May 12, 2014

Tense situations

          Astronomers talk and write about cosmic stuff in the present tense: “The aging star RS Puppis pulsates with a period of 41.4 days, at its peak radiating as much light as 15,000 suns.”   “The Iris Nebula in the constellation Cepheus the King is intensely blue.”   “Polaris (actually not a single star but two close star buddies) lies nearest to the earth’s extended northward axis, so it does not appear to move as earth rotates, and thus serves us nicely as the North Star for navigating.”
         But the truth is, none of that is necessarily true any longer.  We can’t ever experience views of any object or happening outside earth’s atmosphere in the present tense.  Light travels at a strictly-enforced speed limit of 186,000 miles per second, so we see even our moon, the nearest celestial object, always as it was more than a second ago.  We can never see it as it is this instant.   It takes sunlight about eight minutes to reach us, meaning if the sun explodes this present second it will be eight minutes from now before we’ll see it happen and head out to the supermarket to stock up on bread and milk.  The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is over four light years away (24 trillion miles, or 24 thousand billion miles), so the light we see from it right now left there over four years ago.  Other stars and whole galaxies are thousands, millions, and billions of light years distant.  So some of those stars almost certainly are mere ghosts of their former selves; they may have burned out or exploded long ago, even before our earth was formed, and the light they beamed out while they were alive is only just reaching us now.  They sure appear to be still out there, though.  But anytime we look into the far sky, we’re experiencing the past tense on a grand scale.

          Barstool jokes also are often erroneously told in the present tense:  “Horse walks into a bar, takes a booth.  Sexy waitress comes over and says, ‘Aw, why the long face?’ ”
          And some authors of both fiction and nonfiction insist on writing in the present tense.  Probably because they think it lends an aura of immediacy to their work, or it just makes them stand out as different.
          But how do our teachers, preachers, newscasters, friends, and family members relate their tales to us?  Nearly always in the past tense, right?  For example: “Let me tell you what happened yesterday.  I was walking my  thirteen poodles along Hydrant Street when I met a therapist I haven’t seen in ten years, and . . .”  Or, “This is Candy Capdteeth reporting to you here on-scene for the Manglefacts News Network.  Residents of this idyllic island nation were stunned and devastated when their sacred volcano at the island’s heart erupted yesterday, spewing old offerings and . . . “
          The past tense is overwhelmingly familiar, and what’s familiar makes for easy, comfortable, engaging reading, which is the main reason I always choose to write even the most tense scenes in the past tense. 
          A simple secondary reason is my reader knows (at least subconsciously) nothing in my writing can possibly be happening while she or he is reading it, any more than we can look out and witness what is currently happening in the universe.


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