I have owned three watches in my life. The best thing about the first was a bucking bronco on the face that appeared to move when you rotated your wrist. (I would like to have that watch now, just to make the horsie go.) The second watch was silvery and adult; I killed it in the showers after gym my first week of junior high. The third, a pocket watch, I received some dozen years later as a humorous token of my first departure from this newspaper, which I used to typeset (not long after the switch from clay tablets). I don’t know where that watch is now; it is a very long time since I looked at it or looked for it.
Strangely, though I haven‘t worn a watch since I was 11 years old, I have the habit of checking my wrist whenever a question of time comes up. It is always a hair past a freckle where I am.
That humans are as a breed obsessed with time means that there is usually some watch-wearing person within 20 paces who can tell me the hour when I need to know it. And I am not without clocks, though the clock in my car is right only during daylight-saving time, and then only almost right; the clock on my computer creeps ahead of the rest of the world; and the clock on my answering machine is just broken. The clock upstairs is unplugged because the power strip doesn’t work, and the clock on the kitchen wall we took down because it made the most horrible scraping sound when the gears went around; we never know what time it is in the kitchen. If we want to know what time it is, we have to go into the living room and look at the cable box, which is the only clock here I trust, because it is beyond my power to set in the first place.
I am of two minds about time. I long to float free in it, and from it. My time, I like to think, is my own. (Some of the time, anyway.) I strive to throw off its strictures — its hours and minutes and seconds and milliseconds. I refuse the social constructs and artificial values of your 9-to-5 suit-and-tie world, man. I‘ve got nothing on my wrist, and nothing around my neck. (So much of my life has been determined by what I don’t want to wear, it‘s . . . sad, really.) And yet I have a high regard for punctuality; I don’t like being late, and I would like to say right now that if you and I ever have an appointment for which I am not on time, I will feel bad about it. (Missing a deadline — which, I admit, has happened once or twice, depending on your definition of ”once or twice“ — costs me deep emotional pain, and I am not just saying that to impress the editors who expected this column two days ago.) Though one reserves perhaps a certain romantic admiration for the habitually tardy, outlaws that they are, I can also tell you that if you are supposed to be at the van at 9 a.m. to drive to Cleveland for a 4 o‘clock sound check, you had best not be asleep in your hotel room while your friends cool their heels in the lobby, without even having had their coffee yet, if you know what’s good for you.
When we are small, time, like pretty much everything else, seems huge beyond reckoning. Days last for days. A year is barely comprehensible. Then we learn to tell time, a prime rite of passage like learning to dress yourself, or learning to read, or how to work out how many apples John will have if Mary gives him three and Alex takes two without even asking so Mary takes one back and gives it to John. (It will depend of course on whether John had any apples before Mary arrived — use your head!) Once you are clock literate, you are on the road to citizenship in the grown-up world. You can Be on Time. You can Not Waste Time. But in the end it is time that wastes you. Time is not on your side, no it is not. It is a willful child that you have to ”keep an eye on“ and try not to ”lose track of,“ but it is too quick for you. It flies. To say that there is never enough time is just another way of saying, ”It is sad I will not live forever“ — which is why heaven was invented, with its timeless time and everlasting light.
The people of Earth have long tried to master time, with their sundials and hourglasses and water clocks, and yet it was by defining time that they were enslaved by it. From junior watching the little hand ticking the minutes until 3, to the worker waiting for 5, we are a race of clock watchers — and punchers. What‘s more, and worse, as soon as you understand that your life is made up of years, days, minutes and seconds, of a finite and not particularly large number, you begin to count them down: Time binds you to death.
Sometimes I see time as an edge, the universal straight edge of the advancing present, a kind of cosmic paint roller racing into nothingness, realizing each universal moment into being, ceaselessly paving over the future with the past. But that is a rather unsettling way of looking at it, all that crushing Nothing backed up behind the thinnest film of Now. (I guess it might be liberating in a good old existential kind of way, if you are a good old existentialist.) More often, I see time as a house, something in which I am contained, something stable and established that extends behind and beyond me and my temporary tenancy. In practice, the present feels more like a smear than an edge, blurred into the past we know and the future we trust will be there when we arrive. We are all born fortunetellers: Our minds race ahead of us, paving the void with possibility. We take it for granted that tomorrow will come, that existence will not be canceled like a low-rated television show. We behave as though the future already exists, not necessarily in the Tralfamadorian sense — in which what is to come has already transpired — but in that we can see ourselves in it, imagining our next move as though it were already made. I picture myself now getting up from this desk to go to the kitchen (where there is no clock, but there are cookies). (Mostly I picture the cookies.)
Will there come a time of no time, and will it be even duller than a summer Sunday afternoon when you have a cold and there’s nothing good on television? I feel safe in saying I have no idea whatsoever. Time is defined by growth and decay and movement, and when there‘s nothing left to grow or decay or move, no trains to catch or coffeehouse appointments to keep, that, I suppose, will be that. Your wristwatch will be good only as a fashion accessory then. I am sure I’ll miss time when it‘s gone — there are no movies without it, or music, or dancing, or seeing how long you can hold your breath underwater. Quality of life would certainly suffer. But then again: I’d never miss a deadline.