Oct 202017

In the “olden days” (that is, in my own youth…) there were these things called watches, devices one wore on the wrist so as to keep track of the time. These needed care, which means they needed to be wound up (usually daily), since their inner workings consisted of springs that gradually unwound. That chore was eventually eliminated when crystal inner workings came along, and later, solar power.

The watches of my youth emitted a sound that corresponded with the second hand as it swept past the seconds — tick, tick, tick. In quiet moments, especially during dark sleepless nights, the noise of it could be infuriating or reassuring, depending on one’s mood. Only recently have I realized that, unlike the personal habit I (and many of my contemporaries) have, the wearing of a wristwatch is no longer a typical thing. Who needs a watch when you have a cell phone? Check it out: next time you’re in a multi-generational group and ask for the time, watch for who reaches for their phones instead of extending an arm to raise the sleeve before bending the elbow to look at a watch.

Once, when my daughter was maybe in 5th grade, she asked for the time and I said, “quarter of ten.” What I remember is how upset she got. “Yeah, but what time is it?” she demanded. That was when I realized she had only learned to tell time on digital clocks. My young digital native didn’t understand the beautiful and multiple ways to use a 360 degree circle broken into 60 equal parts for the minutes and 12 equal parts for the hours. That “ten after” implied starting at the top of the dial and traveling, well, clockwise (did she even understand that concept and its opposite, “counter-clockwise”?). That “half past” meant the hour was half used. If I’d said, “9:45” it would have made sense to her, but not “quarter to.” I realized that she had no concept of the fractions that a clock face offers. No wonder she found math difficult.

Since then, I have heard from medical educators that they have to teach students how to use an analogue clock for measuring vital signs – as in, taking the pulse for six or 15 seconds and then multiplying by 10 or 4, respectively. (Multiplication, too, has taken a big hit, what with calculators on every phone as well. Sigh.) The watch I wear is large and has illuminated hands; it’s easy to see in the rain in an upside-down crashed vehicle, or anywhere else my work takes me.

Call me old fashioned, but I prefer analogue clocks and measuring my hours not by numbers but by the way the hands travel across the face of the clock in an everlasting circular cadence. It lends me a better sense for the sweep of time, whereas digital clocks simply enumerate our lives, just blinking, blinking, blinking in such a cold, impersonal way.

In my home is a 250+ year old grandfather clock that descended to me through time via my cousin’s family. Its legacy is written inside the cabinet door, and it keeps time almost perfectly! It emits a commanding tick, tock, tick tock! and a beautiful bell steadily tolls the top of the hour. Every four days, I am compelled to grasp the wooden-handled brass winding key, set it into the winding holes as untold others have done before me, watch as the hefty ten-inch cylindrical weights rise on their ancient brass cords to the top of the pendulum box. There, they begin yet another descent in the clock’s measuring of time. It always gives me pause. I think: here I am, another four days have passed, and both this clock and I are still ticking away.

Time-keeping is a measurement tool for so many things: the rate of a pulse, the hours left until whatever is next, the days until a birthday, the years in a life. There’s something so tactile about an analogue timepiece, something that speaks to forces beyond simply telling the time. I wonder about those in this digital age who are maybe missing out on something just a wee bit mysterious and, to me, worth knowing.

  6 Responses to “The Passage of Time”

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this piece, the sentiment is so palpable. As a nurse for 45 years, my timex watches with second hands, iluminated hands and “took a licking” through baths and bed making, counting drops on IVs, anxious moments on night shift and more. I still enjoy wearing my timex..it’s like an old reliable friend. Thanks Kate for taking me on a memory journey.

  2. I live with a clock lover, and am blessed to have him take care of our lovely collection of timepieces. As we age I find I appreciate them (and him!) more and more. Your Grandfather clock is beautiful, and I just love that your family has documented his care and ownership. I hope my family will value the timepieces they will inherit as much as you do.

  3. I am intrigued by a clock that counts down the hours one has remaining in life. An approximation can be had by consulting several websites that estimate ones longevity given family and personal history, current medical condition, etc. The clock would thus be set to count down the years, days and hours remaining. Imagine the reflection and a refined urgency this might cause in people’s lives. Perhaps it would spur healthier living or a new found importance to the people and world around us.

    My neighbor was killed this week in an auto pedestrian crash while photographing wildlife shortly before sun up. Regardless of time and the hour, each day is a gift. Thanks for the thought provoking and nostalgic writing Kate.

  4. I loved it, Kate! I have an old grandfather clock with a blue crescent moon and stars on the top. I bought it for myself on my 40th birthday. I have two very dear clock experts, Larry and Pat that come to my house to work on my clocks when needed. I bought the grandfather clock from Larry. They are two of the most interesting people I know. I would love to send them this piece but neither of them have cell phones, a computer or a watch. They both have hundreds of clocks. All with a story to pass the time.

  5. I really enjoyed this piece, Kate.I have long been fond of ‘time pieces’ and have problaby marked almost every ‘significant’ birthday, anniversary, graduation or ‘moving on’ event with the gift of a watch. Watches mark time and events in beautiful or concretely practical ways. Needless to say, if you walk the shopping streets of Zurich, a city at the heart of a country we have long associated with precision time keeping, you see shop window after shop window reflecting the contemporary marvels for keeping time. I will always be a ‘watcher’.

  6. So true! Amazing how the measurement of time has evolved over years. Thank you for sharing the impact of our recent shift to the digital age.

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