Tag Archives: clocks

Timing is Everything

In case you hadn’t noticed, we turned back the clocks not too long ago. If you seem to be waiting an awfully long time on the platform for your train, turning up for dinner even earlier than usual and Jimmy Fallon strangely has been looking a lot more like Jay Leno than he used to – well, that’s the reason. Or could be. Turning back the clock in the fall gives us an extra, or earlier, or later, or at least different hour than we’d been having, although nothing really has changed except our tacit wink-wink-nudge-nudge agreement that things have changed – it’s just darker when you don’t want it to be, and lighter when you can’t take advantage of it.  Writers have plumbed the possibilities of this misplaced or displaced or confusingly lost hour – it’s 2, then, blammo, it’s 1, suddenly – in sci-fi, or ingenious “Groundhog Day”-like fictions.  That is, stories in which one has an hour to live over, or is given the unexpected gift of time to arrive at some profound realization, to undo a regretted deed, to have an additional 60 minutes to live …

For those whose clocks and watches are of the digital variety, this time-change event is hardly momentous – in fact, it’s practically negligible. A push of a button or two, and the number easily flicks from one to the one before. No biggie. But we who take our time in analog doses (see Time Piece and Tick Tock) are prisoners of and are seduced by the process – it is precisely the process that gives us a sense of time. In spring, the process is an easy one – you merely move the hands forward a turn. New time; lost hour. A light twist of the wrist. But, because experts suggest that moving the hands backward on an analog timepiece can hurt the works by forcing the machinery to move against its forward, clockwise intent, it is recommended that, when the autumnal change occurs, one move the hands forward all the way around the clock face to the new number: from 2 to 3 to 4 and so on to arrive at 1. A less easy task, especially if one is reconfiguring a clock that has chimes; with every quarter turn of the hands, one has to stop to permit the bells to gong. It can take a while.

But it’s a “while” that’s worth it, because the very slow and tedious process of moving the hands gives some sort of heft and significance to the task, and a meaning to the result: Time is a stream that carries you along with it; time takes time, and time takes its time. Time is like money: to gauge its value, you have to spend it.

I am not one of those who are fascinated with the fantastical chance to gain or relive or reshape a magically gifted hour. After the slow and careful twisting of a knob to get the hands around the face of a clock (you want to get the time just right, because if you pass it, you have to go all the way around again), I find myself lingering, hesitant to put the hand where it needs to be. That last minute, that final second – I hold it back, and there is not only power in this, as I stop time, or fool myself into thinking that I do, but there is also, in that small slice of clock, in that sliver of a sliver of time, the creation of an entity. For that moment before the hand slides or snaps into place, time somehow becomes not a fluid conceit but a place. That little hair’s breadth of signified time on a ticking or whirring machine becomes a location of some magnitude because, for that moment, or for however long I want to withhold the final demarcation of the “right” time, that is a valuable piece of real estate that I own; when I place the hand where it needs to go, I am deeding that real estate to a force that has little interest in nor acknowledges the temporal fragility of me. I am done with it, and it with me. And life and time move on. Time is a place, one where memories and plans dwell, simultaneously, and equally. There is no past, no future, merely the thing we call the present moment. Clock or no clock, no matter how much you turn that knob, there is no turning back. But why should there be? Time is not a direction, but a location. Time is wherever you are now, and placeness is the currency of the land.

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Tick Tock

In the course of moving some items from one household to another, in among the objects were several clocks that had made the journey. These clocks, time machines of varying sorts, were unplugged in the morning and their faces reported the last moment before time stopped for them. They showed that they left one place at precisely 11:40 and although it was several hours later, in their deactivated state, to them it was 11:40. Stuck in time, so to speak, as the relentless coursing seconds, minutes and hours were literally standing still for these long-vigilant counting machines. I think I felt a little sad for them, removed from their tasks and losing their rhythm.

We all accept the artificial overlay and concept of time and time-keepers. We may not be synchronized to Greenwich Mean Time, but we do obsess over delays or off-schedule events, by the clock. Look how time, split into hair-like fragments, determines outcomes of competitions.

In areas that are prone to electrical surges or outages, the annoying distinction of digital clocks is that they go off but they come back on blinking in a kind of S.O.S. call that their workings have been meddled with – alarmist tactics that agitate rather than put the mind at ease, a crying-wolf pattern that ends up meaningless when something real takes place. Some of the older analog clocks have a colored dot that appears if the power goes out, just so you know – nothing pushy. Of course, the battery clocks are unaffected. They can stop, but never in unison – their trauma is individual, not communal.

It was a bit unnerving seeing these recently moved clocks so disconnected, living in the past. It made me think about horrible disasters – floods, earthquakes, tornadoes – that, when electricity goes out and life as we know it is destroyed, all the clocks stop at precisely the same moment recording the balance-tipping instant. In a sense, time has stopped and the time on the clocks has eternalized the event, the frozen hands imbuing a poetic sorrow with the real. Imagine how we would know from clocks the exact moment when the world ended, if we didn’t end, too. Except for the poor souls forever cast in stone after Vesuvius erupted, there is no other more telling a silence than a stopped clock. In toto, permanently and collectively stopped.

I remember when my mother had her stroke while sitting at her computer and laid on the floor for we-didn’t-know-how-long. My brother was able to access the clock in the computer to figure out when it was turned on, what activities took place in a sort of log and when it went idle. It was fascinating, yet devastating. The computer’s clock told us more than we wanted to know about time stopping for mom. It became a witness to the crime, as well as a sleuth.

Miss Havisham ordered every clock to be stopped on her never-to-be wedding day, to live forever frozen in that time, as a constant reminder. Was it the moment of betrayal, the moment of thrill before betrayal, or the moment when the vows were to be spoken? Whatever, it was chilling.

Magritte’s Time Transfixed illustrates this occurrence as a free-floating, unmoving locomotive and as a stopped clock. Both are powerful images of fate and loss, the human condition. Time is the human condition. Stopped time, for sure.

So these clocks of mine that are temporarily halted have enough placeness to give me pause, make me extend their meaning to existential wonderings. We hear them tick as background, like heartbeats. And then they can quit, just like that.

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