The Now: Imperfective Time (#367)

In English, we tend to speak of three main tenses of verbs as past, present, and future: Something happened, something is happening, something will happen. In our Autismland household, I am acutely aware of those three basic states of time, the then, the now, and the “wlater,” as Charlie puts it. Notions of time are abstract and while Charlie has a sense of past, present and future—-that yesterday he saw his aunt and cousins from LA and that’s “all done”—that today it is “pooor-ing” so we can’t swim and have to find something else to do now (hopping in the black car continually was the main meaning of now today)—that tomorrow we will go to Philadelphia and see Charlie’s pal, Hal—-while Charlie holds his head up stiff and attentive when we go over these things with him, in practice, there is only one tense that Charlie tends to speak of, and think of, the present tense.

The tense of The Now.
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I have become cautious about talking too much about things that will happen in the future and hence have not been speaking about the “yellow schoolbus” as Charlie’s ESY does not start until Wednesday, or about how we will go to the beach for “two weeks in Aug-gust,” or what we might have for dinner. On the one hand I sense I am leaving Charlie in the “desert place,” an in-between state of not-exactly-knowing what happens next, and that haunted look seems to appear in his eyes when he feels this way. And, on the other hand, I know that if I mention we are going swimming anything more than, oh, nine minutes before the actual event, I will be hearing non-stop “suit on! suit on! suit on! swimsuit ON! swimsuit! I want suit on, swim-ming! suit on!” in the backseat of the car, and have to control myself from glancing at Charlie in the rear view mirror while on the Interstate.

It is not, I think, simply that Charlie lives only in The Now. It is that Charlie’s language—that language for Charlie—expresses only The Now. I say “guacamole” in front of Charlie and had better start mashing avocados; Jim mentions “school bus” and Charlie runs to the window. Charlie is just getting the knack of speaking more often in complete sentences. He is not at all (linguistically speaking) ready to add -ed or was…..-ing to put a verb into a past tense, or will to indicate the future. We have to use words like “yesterday” or “tomorrow” or “next” to denote these tense changes for Charlie.

I am a teacher of foreign languages—of Latin and classical Greek, two ancient languages rich in verb tenses and a few other things,


“moods” (indicative, subjunctive, optative, imperative) and “voice” (active, middle, passive), and something else that quite baffles my college students, “aspect.” “Aspect” is often referred to as the “quality of action”—-?????????????—-that is, to whether the action denoted in a verb is continuous (present), or happens one unique time (aorist), or is complete (perfect).

It goes without saying that no student has been more challenging and more gratifying to teach “language” to than Charlie. With Charlie, the question is not “will he learn the endings of the future perfect tense” but rather “can he say the initial /w/ of ‘will’ clearly”? But there are some grammatical concepts—like the notion of “aspect” above—-that are difficult to explain verbally to anyone, but felt by us all. And certainly by my language-challenged minimally verbal autistic son, Charlie.

I gave you the grammatical expression of “aspect” above. And while I noted that Charlie has such trouble—anxiety, at least—conceptualizing the different tense-times of past or present or future, I would say that he has some innate grasp of “aspect.” Of whether some situation, some thing, is ongoing, or happens once and once only, or is completed.

For instance, today, the first Saturday of the summer, it rained—“pooooored!” said Charlie, imitating me—–all dingdong day. The sky was grey. It was cloudy and humid. There was thunder. The swimming pool was open briefly (but the snack bar was closed). I will express this with a verb in the “present aspect”:

It was a day of continuous, unremitting, grey, clouds, rain, inside.

Jim was participating in a religious education program at the Interfaith Center in New York City this afternoon; Jim’s sister was taking Grandpa to see Grandma in the hospital. It was a day of Me (Mom) and Charlie, continuously.

I kept up a schedule of discrete, one time (aorist aspect) activities: Charlie and I went on a walk. We went to the grocery store. We practised the piano. We went to the Asian food store for spring roll wrappers and gai lan (Chinese broccoli). We did Edmark Lesson 12. We colored part of a picture. We did Receptive Photo Actions and Expression Object ID. We went to a movie, we parked the car in the rain.

We were told “The 4.15pm showing of Cars is sold out.”

(That is the “perfect aspect,” denoting “completed action” as in “the ticket sales for this showing of Cars have been sold out.”)

We went back home.

And here the “aspects” get a bit muddied. We had completed the car ride back home but suddenly there were Charlie and I, suspended in a glob of less than hour, waiting for Jim to come back and put the perfect stop to the continuous Charlie-and-mom aspect of the day.

Charlie and I were sitting on the couch when one moment—as often happens in Autismland—changed everything.

Charlie hit the back of his head four times on the wall. Then said, “no guacamole! all done! all done! all done!”

Completed action.

I felt awful. Charlie was writhing all over the floor and the couch and the rain was pouring down and we were both sweating, and panting, by the time a too-long The Now was over.

I didn’t want to say, no Charlie, I think we will have to eat dinner here tonight. I think we will just have to stay put and wait for Dad to come home. (And Jim’s train got stuck in Secaucus and he got home late.)

As I—hot and sad—was sitting with Charlie (also hot and sad) on the floor, my mind must have let go and I recalled something I had read last week in a book about the plays of the ancient Greek tragedian, Sophocles. It was an essay about “Sophocles and Time.” The scholar was looking carefully at Sophocles’ use of the imperfect versus the perfect tenses, the imperfect expressing “repeated, habitual, continuous” time and the perfect denoting “completed time.” The writer—an Oxford-trained scholar—described this as “imperfective” and “perfect” time.

In Autismland, time is imperfective. Our days are all about the long hours, the boring everlasting moments in which we wait for something to happen (“Daddy come home!”) but before that moment does, something else (four head-knocks on the wall) does and there goes the dinner plan, if not the day. For the past year, I have tried, however mundanely, to record the moment after moment of a boring life in Autismland, somewhere in New Jersey. For what is life in Autismland but so many mundane, miniscule moments, and you just cannot wait till that sun goes down, and you can know I made it. We made it, Charlie did it, the day was okay.

For no, there goes not the day. Why let 1% of the time cancel out so many happy, beautiful, precious moments?

We live in imperfective time. We live in The Now.

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