It all started when I went to the University of Toronto library to check out some books for my dissertation—which, incidentally, is about how people perceive time (more on that in another post).
Unfortunately, I was unable to check out the aforementioned books due to the fact that I had mysteriously accrued some $50 in fines for items that were still checked out.
This is impossible, was my first thought.
The latest round of books, which I checked out late last December, were no exception to my new rule. On December 19, 2014, I checked out six library books from the University of Toronto. In a hurry, I shoved the receipt into my book bag and went on my way. After promptly losing the receipt, I went online a week later to double check the due date. The computer screen read: “5/1/2015.” May first. This seemed perfectly normal, since campus libraries typically lend books for entire semesters at a time.
Fast forward to today. Unable to check out any books, I rushed to a computer and pulled up my campus library account. Strangely, despite today’s being the eleventh of February, the $50 had accrued from books that still appeared to be due on “5/1/2015.” Even though snow was falling outside, I checked my calendar to make sure I wasn’t just imagining it was February. It was one of those moments when you wonder if you are going insane. Have I gone through some kind of time vortex? I wondered. Was I mysteriously channeled via some invisible port hole to a planet that looks like earth in every way except it is actually May and I have the same library account? Questions like this flooded my mind, none of which had anything to do with the fact that my husband has been insisting we watch sci-fi movies before bedtime lately.
And then I remembered: I am not on another planet. I am not in a time vortex. I’m just in…
Oh, Canada. The land flowing with politeness and maple syrup. Where the moose run freely, where snow is everywhere and where there is VIRTUALLY NO STANDARD WAY OF WRITING THE CALENDAR DATE (excuse the all caps, but this is serious). Canada: where 5/1 can mean either May 1st or January 5th.
And where, officially, neither of these dates is correct. Canada, supposedly, follows a new-fangled system of date writing: YYYY-MM-DD, a method of time notation known as ISO 8601. If this seems like something out of another dimension, don’t worry—the only adherents to this temporal protocol are binary code, the internet, and Canada. (And a growing number of other countries that I care not to officially recognize right now because it detracts from the natural hyperbole of this situation). Despite this, very few Canadians (besides the Customs and Immigration Office and all 60 pages of their residency application) insist on using this mythical method of date writing. Left to their own devices, people up here tend towards the European style (dd/mm) and, alternatively, the American (mm/dd) style.
Full disclosure: Even though I’m American, I’m not opposed in any way to the European style of date writing. I’ve been using it almost exclusively for the last four years since I moved out of my homeland. Give me a month and a date and I will write the latter first. If I were still living in Europe, I wouldn’t have a problem reading the correct date, since EVERYONE with no exception writes the date the same way. But in a country like Canada, this is problematic, since every so often you come across dates written the “wrong” way and it throws you off. After all, to distinguish between the American and European styles (beyond a shadow of a doubt), the date (dd) has to be bigger than 12—that way you know for sure which number is the date and which is the month. Banks in Canada, for example, are required to specify the month when writing dates that might be confusing (e.g. 05/Jan/2015). Evidently, public university libraries are required to take no such precaution—unlike banks, they have free reign to prey on the innocent fines of their patrons.
Whatever the case, the due date listed in my library account was not ISO 8601 certified.
A (Canadian) friend here shared my outrage. With her encouragement, I took up my issue with the front desk of the library. After I calmly stated my case, the library employee (who, like me, was an immigrant) stared blankly at me.
“You don’t know how to write the date?” She asked me.
“No… That’s not the issue…”
“How long have you been in Canada?” She asked.
“A year and a half.”
“And you still don’t know how to write the date?”
My attempts to explain to her that it was the university, not me, that didn’t write the date properly--that the fines were a completely honest mistake on my part. She interrupted my explanation to ask what degree I was getting. I told her I was a doctoral student.
“You are getting your PhD and you don’t know how to write the date?”
My case was fruitless. Finally, I desisted and walked away.
It was then that I knew how Albert Einstein had felt in 1905 when he first published his theory of special relativity, only to be trampled by the criticism and tirades of his fellow scientists, who refused to believe that the mechanical foundations of the universe were not objectively constant. The difference between Einstein and me is that while he knew time is relative to mass and velocity and the speed of light, I know otherwise:
Time (or at least the date-keeping part of it) is relative to Canada.