By Franny Choi
“Periodic #9” is Franny Choi’s final essay for the column. For the past nine months, she wrote a short column on the first day of her period (or tried to)—a check-in that covered issues of gender, queerness, writing, health, and/or love. We couldn’t be more grateful or proud to be the platform for her exploration of self and love and life through prose. Thank you Franny!
For the past nine months, I’ve been writing an essay—or something like an essay—once per menstrual cycle. At first, I set out to always write the piece on the first day of my period, but it turned out that I was pretty bad at this (for which I apologize to my editor—sorry Josh!). This was partly because of my travel-heavy schedule, and partly because, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been shit at time. My first memory of getting in trouble at school was having to stay late to finish a coloring assignment because I’d failed to “use my time wisely.” I’m chronically late to everything, and my sleep schedule becomes monstrously out-of-wack if I’m left to my own devices for more than 24 hours. Recently, I accidentally—to my doctor’s horror—took antibiotics for a full week longer than I was supposed to, just because I couldn’t remember when I’d started them.
My partner, Cameron, happens to be very good at time, and he finds my orientation toward it distressing to say the least. At some point in the recent past (who knows when), he read me an excerpt on the subject from Alan Lightman’s great book Einstein’s Dreams. This particular passage described an imagined world in which two kinds of time exist at once: “mechanical time” and “body time”:
The first is as rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The second squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay. The first is unyielding, predetermined. The second makes up its mind as it goes along.
In this world, each variety of time has its devotees. Those who live according to body time pay no attention to clocks; instead, “they listen to their heartbeats. They feel the rhythms of their moods and desires.” Such people eat when they’re hungry, sleep when they’re tired, and understand time as a malleable, capricious beast. Conversely, those who subscribe to mechanical time “eat their lunch at noon and their supper at six. They arrive at their appointments on time, precisely by the clock… They know that the body is not a thing of wild magic, but a collection of chemicals, tissues, and nerve impulses.” The passage goes on to say that, though the two times can each exist happily on their own, trouble arises when they converge.
“Each time is true,” writes Lightman, “but the truths are not the same.”
Indeed, Cameron and my worlds clash most when my faith in body time comes up against his attunement to mechanical time: when he stands by the door, keys in his hand, while I’m still frantically trying to curl my hair; when he leaves bed to do the dishes even though I’m convinced we’re too sleepy to get up. My belief in the elasticity of time—and, more troublingly, in its springy-ness in response to my will—has gotten us in trouble more than once.
You’d think having a calendar built into your ovaries would make you better at navigating the ol’ space-time continuum. (Side note: in a streak of either poetry or coincidence, the gene responsible for powering cellular biological clocks is called the “period” gene!) But perhaps this is precisely the problem. It’s possible that I’m a little drunk on confidence in my impressive biological clock structure. I know that every cell in my body is letting proteins disintegrate at coordinated rates to communicate with my suprachiasmatic nucleus; that these microscopic hourglasses are keeping track of when it’s time to sleep, to eat, to release another egg. And my period cycles have always been dependable, if not quite regular. I can always tell when my period is coming, and I can always tell what part of the cycle I’m in. Every month, I’m energetic, then horny, then bloated, then crying, then bleeding, like clockwork, even if the clock is only synchronized with itself.
At the risk of sounding like I’m claiming that my tardiness is revolutionary, it seems important to offer a reminder that time discipline is very much a product of Western capitalism and imperialism, as British historian E.P. Thompson discusses in “Time, Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Thompson shows how time began to be seen as a commodity to be used and regulated as a direct result of the rise of wage-labor relations in the 19th Century. Time discipline played a role, too, in colonial projects; claims of the “indolence” or “idleness” of colonial subjects were crucial to justifying their subjugation. In the U.S., time zones and time standardization arose from new necessities of the railroad system—which, of course, was being built with the exploited labor of the first major wave of Asian immigrants to North America. So, when I say I’m bad at time, the thing I’m bad at is, at least in part, a disciplinary system that’s at the center of a long history of Western exploitation.
Then again, when I say I’m bad at time, I also mean that I regularly make my friends starve in the lobbies of restaurants. It’s much less impressive when you put it this way. My poor partner, who listens to me describe the forty things I intend to get done that day and then has to watch me scroll through Twitter and slowly water each house plant instead of getting in the shower so we can actually leave. My poor bosses, some of whom were very kind; my poor, poor inbox.
In the interest of not pissing off everyone I know all the time, my solution over the last few years has been to instate a variety of rather over-the-top systems. There’s a series of alarms on my phone titled “Seriously GET UP,” “Leave in 15 minutes,” “Leave in 5 minutes,” and “LEAVE RIGHT NOW.” Taped to my office wall is a five-year plan, disaggregated into four categories, which I’ve further broken down on a separate chart with my goals for each month of the 2019-2020 academic year. Looking at this stuff, a casual observer might assume I’m an organized person, when actually, these systems are the only chance I have of bullying my body-time-oriented brain into any sort of alignment with a persistently mechanical-time world.
Maybe this gravitation toward discipline is why I’ve always been drawn to meter in poetry. Meter is the poem’s metronome, and formal metered verse is the clock that contemporary American poetry inherited. Meter haunts even the freest of verse. Meaning, sound, and syntax fight against their containers, and what emerges is the poem’s rhythm, its unique time signature. I love the tension between these. I love stretching the body of the sentence across the meter’s machine and seeing what happens when you pull it taut or let it droop. I love racing the clock of the sonnet, trying to pack a sprawling thought into its deeply disciplinary grid. Poetry is, after all, an art of frictions: sentence vs. line, logic vs. feeling, sublime vs. mundane. From friction comes a spark, and from a spark comes (I believe, if you’ve done it right) the sudden, violent sense that you really are alive, after all.
Lately, what’s been on my mind when I think about biological clocks is the other, more commonly-used sense of that phrase. I turned thirty just a week or so after writing my first Periodic column, and, to my great eye-roll, babies have been on my mind in a real way. There are days when it’s all I can think about, when it seems like every thought is about sperm donors and gender-neutral baby names and the remarkable ridiculousness of the whole enterprise. Some days, I have to admit, it feels as though this particular part of my biological clock is ringing loud enough to drown out everything else.
Of course, though, this clock is actually only partly biological. I’ve officially entered the period of a Korean woman’s life when her mother starts reminding her that she’s not getting any younger. And, though some places are better than others, plenty of poets and academics find themselves trying to plan their pregnancies around their work/sabbatical schedules. Penciled in, speculatively, for 2023 on my five-year plan is “Tenure review?” and next to it, “Get knocked up!” At least for me, the baby clock is as much social/professional as it is biological—and though each time is true, it’s not clear to me what might happen if I asked those truths to coexist.
What I suspect would happen is: friction. But I think (at the risk of sounding like I’m claiming that my tardiness is Very Romantic), making a life with someone may be, itself, an art of frictions. For now, those points of contact between my body time and Cameron’s mechanical time are mostly moments of delight. For now, he mostly laughs when I chase him into the shower, when I complain that it’s been “weeks” since breakfast. For now, it’s enough to joke about terrible names to give our kids and which of our friends’ sperm would produce the most entertaining babies. It’s more than possible that our opposing orientations to time will eventually be tragic; for now, it’s a little lovely.
Writing a nine month-long column about menstruation is, too, either deeply self-contradictory or something like an elaborate joke—either poetic or a stupid coincidence, and probably a bit of both. I knew it was a ridiculous enterprise, from the start, to try to write something coherent at the point in my cycle when I’m most in tune with my body’s clock and therefore most out-of-sync with anyone else’s publishing schedule (sorry, Josh, truly).
But in any case, it’s been an experiment of delightful contradictions. And if frictions arose in those points of contact between what’s mechanical and what’s body, between pendulum and bluefish, between lived and logic, I hope, at least, that they were the kind of frictions that make things happen—true things, I mean. The kinds of things that make you feel—oh, I don’t know. A little bit lovely? A little bit alive?