First Person: What Time Is It?

By Harry Weininger
Friday November 24, 2006

It is not yet light, but the day has started, led by a conspiracy of gizmos throughout the house, each doing its assigned duty. These devices are awake already and, untouched by human hands, start to organize my day. The heat is on. The coffee is brewing. NPR lulls me awake with overnight news, weather, and traffic reports.  

Getting up is like stepping on a conveyor belt. Lying in bed feels like time is standing still, and then I am launched into the day. Now is the time for me to engage in all those activities that require time be measured and allocated. I’m preparing to be on time, not to waste time, and to have a good time. The consciousness of time is like a net in which I am caught and carried along.  

Awareness of time constrains, but it can also create opportunities. Some years back, my younger daughter’s boyfriend worked at a bicycle shop. For his birthday I gave him an armband watch with a compass. He had never had a watch before. He told me later that once he had that watch, he started paying attention to time. He started coming to work on time, he became more effective. Before long, he got a promotion and, after a bit, became the manager.  

“What time is it?” may be the most asked question in the world. We are marinated in time, which seems to quietly lurk in the background—though at this time of year, as the days are getting shorter, awareness of time seems to move to the foreground. Time is so pervasive that we don’t even think of it as something. The gentle invisibility with which time envelops us tricks us into viewing time as soft and benign, and we forget the extraordinary power of time, which brings with it the inevitability of our own end. 

We believe we understand time, but the notion is difficult to grasp. If a finger is caught in a car door, it seems like an eternity before a rescuer appears. Precious hours with a lover seem to rush by. Even a small time change, a single hour, can have an awesome effect. We get discombobulated when the body clock and the external clock are desynchronized, whether from jet lag or the semi-annual ritual of clock changing.  

I welcomed the recent changing of the clocks, nuisance though it was, because it was a physical manifestation of this invisible force, putting me in touch with time. At least 37 timepieces under my jurisdiction needed to be changed: Wristwatches, radios, thermostat, kitchen clock, oven clock, telephones, computer clocks, car clocks ... the list seems endless. Some of these timers change time on their own. Others are automatically set by radio signal from Boulder. For most, changing the time is a fairly simple procedure. For a few, it’s not so easy—they require almost complete disassembly and fiddling with fingers. Setting them precisely is tricky. Synchronicity among all the clocks is hard.  

How simple time telling was when time was not sliced into fractions of seconds. One imagines waking with the sun and not needing anything or anyone to tell you to get up. Lightness and darkness were self-explanatory, with instructions for their use built into the very code of life. It is interesting to speculate when our ancestors began to anticipate the future in light of the past, and the application of present effort for future ends became not only respectable but necessary for survival. 

In the tiny village of the Carpathian Mountains where my grandmother lived, watches were a rarity. My grandmother, a World War I widow, somehow managed to raise six children without a timepiece of any kind. People woke in the morning when the cock crowed and the sun came up. In the evening, a kerosene lamp was lit when it got too dark. If you wanted to know the time, you looked up at the clock on the church tower, and everyone within hearing of the church bell was perfectly synchronized.  

When my parents bought me my first watch—when I was 12—it was both an honor and a vote of confidence. With the watch went responsibility; you were considered an adult, or at least on the way. The watch had one little knob for winding it up, and you could change the time by pulling the knob out to its final stop. This watch didn’t do anything fancy, but it was a rather nice watch with a reassuring tick—and it still keeps time very well.  

A timepiece handmade by a master craftsperson is a thing of exquisite beauty—a fusion of skill, science, and art. Today’s energy choices are endless. Wind-up, electrically driven, battery powered, wrist motion driven, light driven. Clocks that chirp, chime, play a melody, glow in the dark, work under water or in space. We’ve come a long way from the church tower clock. 

Given the core importance of time, the preoccupation many of us have with it is understandable. Time has been explored by the finest minds, from Einstein to Hawking to Greene. Scientists grapple with notions of chaos, entropy, different sizes of infinity, time travel, and other ideas that remain elusive to most of us.  

I’m awed by how dynamic and perishable time is. You leisurely stretch out on the grass, enjoying the sunshine, scrutinizing the daisies, while time roars by at warp speed. By the time you get up, that moment is thousands of miles away. 

Time is precious and irretrievable. Everyone’s year and month and day is equally long—so in a sense we all have the same amount of time. When we’re young, of course, we think our time is unlimited. And as I’m acutely aware, as we get older, time closes in. 

Since the measurement of time now is so precise—we can plan, coordinate, and synchronize time to the fraction of second—does it make a difference? Is time more valuable? Is life any better? Who can say. Time is going by, and the only control we have is to choose how to use it—and to be present, flowing in sync with our own rhythms.