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"That Hour Was Here
A Minute Ago"
mind matters
October 25, 2002
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Looking at a clock is a funny thing. Do it too often, and time loses its meaning.

Twice every year I contemplate my relationship with time, in tandem with the beginning and end of daylight savings time. Resetting our clocks can feel unnaturally powerful, as though we're altering the universe. In April we speak of losing an hour, but all we do is turn a knob. Where do you think that hour goes?

How we interact with time is a fascinating subject. To begin, let me define three rather arbitrary categories of time: natural time, perceptive time, and clock time.

By natural time I'm referring to the time-keeping patterns of the universe and natural worlds. The earth cycles the sun, the moon circles the earth, and the earth rotates on an axis. It gets cold at night, summer days are long, flowers grow in the spring. Even the rhythms of our bodies influence how we interact with the world. It's the quiet machine of the universe. Natural time is a simplistic concept. Many cultures find peace in it, and many also attribute to it profound meaning.

Perceptive time is simple also, defining how we knowingly experience time, but without accurate measurement. We can predict when projects are going to take a long time. Sometimes events seem to happen quickly, like finishing a bag of potato chips before we realize the bag is empty. Other times events seem to take forever, like trying to fall asleep when there's too much on our minds. Moods affect our sense of time, as we know: time flies when you're having fun. And when we sleep, we fail to perceive time at all. It's clear that perceptive time and natural time correlate, since the passage of time feels different when it's night instead of day, or hot outside instead of cold. What makes perceptive time comfortable is that it's tied to our honest instincts.

But then there's clock time.

Clock time is unforgiving and unnatural. It's a machination designed to coordinate people and activity with precision. We need clocks in an industrialized society, to govern how we function as a society: alarm clocks and punch clocks, calendars and timetables. To follow clock time we will actually fight natural and perceptive time, waking up tired and postponing trips to the bathroom. This battle is a terrible one, because it shatters the peace. Sure, sometimes it's important that everyone reserves a half hour of their day starting at nine o'clock, but it's disruptive. Every reason people hate business meetings comes down to this: they're afraid it's a waste of valuable time.

Conflicts and oddities between clock time and natural time are everywhere. Kansas City is split across two time zones. Arizona doesn't practice daylight savings, but some Arizona reservations do. We add February 29 to our calendars every four years, except every 200 years when we don't, except every 2000 years when we do. About ten years ago we had a leap second, because the earth's oceans knocked us out of sync. Gosh, I don't know what I'd do if that weren't fixed.

I think the real reason we have leap years and leap seconds is because we want our months to feel environmentally consistent over time. Seasons, which always begin on equinoxes and solstices, would begin and end in the "wrong" months of our slowly shifting calendar. What would be so terrible about that? New Year's Day is always January 1, and Valentine's Day is always February 14. The season those holidays fall in would change, that's all.

Long ago, during early calendar development, the Grecian government bypassed several days in an effort to coordinate the seasons. They didn't have regular leap years then, so instead they just adjusted the calendar all at once. It would be like going directly from December 17 to January 1, and not caring. In response, people rioted. They believed their lives were being shortened, that suddenly they were that many days nearer to death. When I tell this story, people usually laugh. Then I ask if they feel cheated when they lose an hour to daylight savings.

Clock time is supposed to be a tool, but we let it rule us. Even our weekends and vacations are filled with itineraries. Living on natural time, when we can do it, is fantastic. When you're tired, you sleep. When you're hungry, you eat.

One day, my wristwatch broke but I didn't immediately replace it. I grew comfortable without it, though it took about two weeks. It was a tool I needed only occasionally. When I did need to know the time, I relied on the hundreds of clocks on objects around me: the computer, the car, the stove, the VCR, the phone; at the bank, on store receipts, from the watches of those around me. Today I use these tools with the same spirit I use sticky notes: when I need one, I get one, and otherwise I don't think about it. I'm building a stronger faith in perceptive time, and finding a greater respect for natural time. Now I rarely wear a watch, only to forget I'm wearing it.

We long for simpler days and simpler times, but we calibrate our lives to the second. That simply makes no sense.

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Copyright 2002 Seth Maislin


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