Saturday, October 30, 2004

The Persistence of Time

Of all monstrosities ever to crawl from mankind’s bleak nightmarish dreams; of all of the ill-conceived, ill-advised, misbegotten, tragic, demon-spirits that his homosapien brain has ever invoked; of all of the twentieth century gaffs ever imagined in the most diabolical, alcohol and drug induced moments of inspiration; none strikes at the core of my ability to function, none saps my strength as assuredly as Delilah’s hairstyling of the omnipotent Sampson, none emasculates me, humiliates me, or intimidates me more than the invention of the digital clock.

This seemingly innocuous device at first glance appears harmless, and in fact, seems quite utilitarian. As I lay half asleep, my face awash in its warm visage glowering its translucent shower, its red demonic eyes glaring at me with sterile lust, jabbing through my closed eyelids taunting me, “almost time, not quite yet, almost.”

My eyes are torn open just one minute prior to that fatal flipping of the digits, 5-5-9, a pause like held breath, then 6-0-0. This is my dance with the Great Satan of my nightstand, each and every morning.

It is not just a dearth of sleep that stokes the embers of my ire. It is something much more insidious and clever. To clarify, I must relate a story.

Recently, I was scheduled to drive my son to a doctor’s appointment after school. The doctor was 15 minutes from the school and the appointment was at 3:00. I fixed in my head the time coordinates the way an old sailor would plot a sea voyage by the stars: I would leave work at 2:30, pick him up at 2:45, then be at the doctor at 3:00.

Now perhaps there is something organically wrong with my brain. Perhaps I am easily distractible or perhaps I have a vitamin deficiency. I have not ruled out the possibility that I may just be stupid. All these are theories that I do not deny as possible causes for what followed. I lost an hour in my head: 2:45 became 3:45.

I arrived at the school one hour late, oblivious to my error. I drove off, estimating my arrival time in a perverse form of calculus that really was more game than functional. As I watched the digital clock flip from 3-5-9 to 4-0-0, the cloud lifted and I stood firmly on the shores of complete and utter confusion: welcome to the land of tardiness. I was embarrassed and confused.

Now, I fully acknowledge and accept my own failings in this debacle, but consider for a moment the un-indicted co-conspirator in this whole affair: the digital clock. The flat, stolid, uncaring digits of that monster, savagely ripped away a three-dimensional world from me, leaving only a landscape of numbers. For one as innumerate as I, this is not only troublesome, but it strikes me as a tad mean-spirited. Distance is not real in this landscape. Perception is not distorted, it simply does not exist.

Analog clocks have long been the instruments man has used to measure the passage of time. Using sand, water even the sun, movement implied time. These methods promoted a contextual understanding of time as it relates to movement and the physicality of the world.

These clocks have given way only fairly recently in the history of humankind to digital forms of measuring the passage from the “now” to the “then”. This shift is one from an almost romantic tango between the physical and the metaphysical, to a vacantly pretty Christmas light which reveals one thing and one thing only: “here you are”. Analog clocks tell me, “here you are, and there you were, and here is where you need to go.”

Analog clocks, exquisitely display space in a relational geometry, not as something static, and fragmented, but as a part of a process. Life is process.

Life is made up of information, the way a pointillist painting is made up of dots. A digital clock reveals the dot, and expects the viewer to appreciate the painting. Analog clocks present the “pulled back view”, so that context is nurtured and fermented, so that meaning and purpose are revealed and preserved.

Digital clocks do relate to my life, but not in the same manner as events relate to my life: only analog clocks do that.

Consider the geometry of movement of an analog clock: circular. It was the Sioux Medicine Man, Black Elk who said “the power of the world always works in circles.” He never suggested that the power of the world works in bits, on or off, flashing LEDs, or flipping panels of digits.

What would Dali’s “Persistence of Time” look like, had he be born in the age of the digital clock? Can a digital clock have any persistence? Does it even have a soul, the way analog clocks seem to?

We have anthropomorphically defined the parts of an analog clock in human terms: it possesses a face and hands. It presents time in a manner more familiar to corporeal beings faced with trying to understand and grapple with something as ephemeral as time. It relates time and space in such a wholesome manner that Einstein himself would approve.

And for those who insist this is progress, this is the digital age, I have no argument. I work with computers; I am fully aware of their advantages. I am not one longing to go back to the days of applying leeches to cure headaches, see my barber for a bloodletting when I get the flu, or insist that the sun really does move around the earth. But because something is new, does it mean it is improved? Or perhaps, as Einstein once noted, everything has changed except man’s thinking. Perhaps progress needs gestation before it is fully assimilated into our true understanding of things. Perhaps, that time is beyond me.

So maybe if I’d had an analog clock on my wrist, or in my car that day, I would not have missed that appointment. Maybe I would have. But I have to stop writing now, because time is up. My own digital wrist watch has screwed me again, as I did not leave enough time to finish this. And I’m willing to bet that if you are reading this piece, your watch is probably telling you that you need to be someplace else now. You simply don’t know where that is.

MB 2004


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