▨ Jamie McHale


Jack and his Great-Grandpa

Last week we visited Harriet’s family for Christmas. As part of the visit we introduced Jack to his Great-Grandpa. One time and place, four generations of family.

This got me thinking about The Great Span: a term that describes the personal connections made across history via a single lifetime. Jack got to meet his Great-Grandpa, born over 90 years ago, and perhaps in 90 years time he’ll meet his own great-grandchild. A span of 180 years. One more hop back, and we’re in the early 1800’s.

I also recall the concept of “personal density”, introduced to me via Breaking Bread with the Dead by Alan Jacobs. He writes with regards to expanding your reading horizons, but I think this applies equally well to understanding family connections of the past and future:

I’m going to try and convince you that the deeper your understanding of the past, the greater personal density you will accumulate.

I take that phrase from one of the most infuriatingly complex and inaccessible of twentieth-century novels, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Fortunately, you don’t have to read the novel to grasp the essential point that one of its characters makes. That character is a German engineer named Kurt Mondaugen, and his profession perhaps explains the curiously technical language he uses to express his core insight. Here is the in which we learn about “Mondaugen’s Law”:

“Personal density,” Kurt Mondaugen in his Peenemünde office not too many steps away from here, enunciating the Law which will one day bear his name, “is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth.”

“Temporal bandwidth” is the width of your present, your now… The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are

Having Jack meet his Great-Grandpa was important to me for this reason. I’m sad that he can’t meet my grandparents, but I can reflect on how they would react to him, and what they might have liked to tell him about the world.

We asked Jack’s Great-Grandpa for a photo of them together, and suggested where he might want to frame it. He said: “it’s not for me, it’s for him, to know he had a great-grandfather.”