Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Timekept timekeepers

I journeyed to London, to the timekept City

      --from "The Rock"
      T. S. Eliot
Shortly after graduating from college, I developed the habit of being late for work. Even during college I was often late for classes. I would constantly look at my watch and race against it to be "on time." I once read a novel where the main character got so frustrated with time that he tore out the hands of a clock. But the clock kept ticking anyway!
One day my wrist watch fell into the toilet. It was waterproof, but not toilet proof.! I lived without a wristwatch. Soon I discovered that I did not need a wristwatch. Clocks are everywhere. Banks have signs flashing the current temperature and time. A clock is located on the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge. The radio announcer tells the time on the hour. There are clocks in supermarkets, offices, and classrooms. The majority of people wear wristwatches. Cell phones, PDA, microwave ovens, computer screens, and even ball point pens have internal clocks.
In the mid-Twentieth Century the concept of "flex-time" at work was revolutionary. You came into work before 8 A.M. and started at exactly 8 A.M. Just like the days in school. You could almost hear the bells ringing in your head.
I averaged five to fifteen minutes late. This was a source of constant strain between me and my supervisors. At first I thought that this was only my problem. But later I found that all of my co-workers struggled with time. My supervisor worried about looking too slack regarding this time issue. Top management knows that "time is money". Time wasted is money lost.
Many cat and mouse games were played over being on time at my workplace. We claimed that our work (much of it mental problem solving) happened on "off hours". Were we compensated for solutions to problems while we took our showers in the morning? No. Mind work does not really stop and start at the time range of 8 to 5. But as management pressed harder for our being there exactly at 8 A.M., one of our best people started reading his newspaper. He would not start doing his real work until about 8:10 A.M. It was a quiet of protest.
I stopped being late after my wristwatch drowned in the toilet's yellow waters. I discovered that I did not have to race the clock as I adjusted down my expectations of what could be done in ten or fifteen minutes. I began to realize exactly what I could do between two events, I felt like I had more time. I used to look at the spare 10 minutes in my watch, and fill up that time with something rather than going to my appointment -- naturally, I could not do all those things. I am a human being not a computer slicing nanoseconds.
In the 1920's a French critic of modern civilization argued that toward the very "end", things would speed up. We would have more and more choices, more things to acquire, and more things to do. This, he wrote, would be the human condition just before the collapse of Modern Civilization -- a civilization based on an almost exclusive devotion to the demons of money and time.
Our current lack of time is a symptom of cultural bankruptcy. We have more options than a human being can manage. We are supposed to be parents, good workers, sexy mates, and personally well developed in every way. There is just not enough time.
There is clock time and natural time -- these two kinds of time may or may not match. It's possible to be "on time" by the clock, yet early or late by natural time. We can never be "on time" by racing against the clock -- the clock will always win, if not by the numbers, by wearing us down and making us die young of high blood pressure.
When we are on natural time, we are always "on time". We are not either waiting or rushing. We are always in the right place at the right time. Doctors used to advise that newborn babies be fed at regular intervals such as 9 a.m., 12 noon, 3 p.m., etc. This was one of the first ways of taking away natural time from our lives.
The art of living is that of harmonizing clock time with natural time. Clock time holds the modern world together. So we need to adjust our clocks to fit human needs, not human needs to fit the clock. Airlines need to run on schedule. But human beings should just "show up" and move on as they will. I rarely look at bus schedules, I just show up and wait. If there are enough buses coming up, I don't worry about when the next bus comes. If I plan my days properly, I move through my appointments with time to spare.
Thumbnail image from Corbis.


Unknown said...

I also stopped wearing a watch in college, and have never regretted it, although I could do with more natural time. Some of my happiest days now are when my appointment book is blank and my time is my own.

Anonymous said...

I lived without a watch for a while. I was always trying to grab the time from the Internet, etc. What's the point if you just end up wasting time hunting for a clock anyway, or you get engrossed in something and lose track of how late it is?

A few months ago in college, I was working on a project on a computer. I was going by the clock on the computer, but it was an hour behind which really messed me up. I said enough was enough and started wearing a watch.

I don't usually feel compelled to hurry because of the time. I keep my watch within 5 seconds or so of the actual time, but it's not important to me what time it is unless, for example, I have to get someplace before it closes. Then again, I'm unemployed.

Why do I keep my watch set so precisely? Mainly because an incorrect clock bugs me in the same way that a picture hanging crooked would bother most people.

I have read an old Chinese saying: "Clocks make people late." The clocks do nothing of the sort. What makes you late is that you underestimate how long things take to do. Try timing how long it takes you to, for example, dry off and put on clothes after a shower. It may surprise you. If you want to avoid this, coldly measure the time it takes you to do things and do not react with disbelief at what your watch tells you.

If you only allow yourself exactly enough time though, it might well not work -- like if you have to search for a misplaced wallet, or talk to a pretty girl.