Wednesday, May 15, 2013


There are, at last count, 22 time-telling devices in my house, not counting the watches I stopped wearing several years ago, or the various phones, iPads and computers that litter my environment.  The clocks are on every floor and in every room. The kitchen alone, where I spend a lot of time eating toast and musing on the meaning of life, has five. Each bathroom has one; the bedroom has three, as does my office in the basement. There’s one in the garage, one in the laundry room, and one in the room devoted to music. A gorgeous 19th Century ormolu which is right twice a day dominates my living room, and in the entrance to my home is an art deco wall clock whose gears froze long ago and were replaced with a modern battery-driven movement. My doctor’s office has clocks wbhich tell me how long I have been waiting for him. If I am ion a room without a clock, I feel a vague, murky discomfort. I am completely aware of the passing of every minute of the day and I have no idea why.

Clocks exist mostly to remind us that time is slipping away. There will never be enough of it in one day, or in a year or, for that matter, in a lifetime, and yet we are obsessed with what is commonly regarded as the fourth dimension.  History is little else but the passage of time, and wisdom is thought to be a byproduct. Consumer purchase more clocks than they do just about any other household electronic appliance and in earlier days, a sign of a family’s wealth and standing in the community was its ownership of a timepiece.  

According to Discover Clocks’ website, “during the early centuries, monks and townspeople were content to divide a day into 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of nighttime based upon the sun. Since the amount of daylight varies with the seasons, dividing daylight into 12 equal units made the length of an hour also vary with the seasons.

“When the first mechanical clocks were built in the 14th century, the idea of 24 fixed length hours became the norm in Europe. While the first mechanical clocks were used in the monasteries, as European towns expanded in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, civil governments wanted their own clocks to regulate life in the towns. The earliest clocks were built into turrets in the local churches or in specially constructed bell towers. Rather than keeping time with hands on a dial, many of these early clocks employed a hammer mechanism that struck the bell to announce the hour.”

Now clocks buzz, hum, sing the Star-Spangled Banner, turn on radios, and are used in bombs. They regulate our lives and indeed were once called regulators. We depend upon them to be angry when someone is late, or surprised when that same person is not. We set athletic records with them, we measure speed and distances and of course time elapsed and make value judgments, all based on an antique way of separating night from day.

For Aristotle, time was linked to movement and change; there is change because there is time, because all things that come to be and come to an end are in time. When we think anything is, the is we refer to is the dimension of time, and we can only truly grasp the instant we recognize as now. A now gone is history, a now not yet present is simple conjecture.

Aristotle’s definition of time is “a number of change with respect to the before and after,” in other words, something countable. And we are back to clocks.

Golda Meier once said, “I must govern the clock, not be governed by it.”  And William Faulkner believed, “Clocks slay time... time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.  I like that.



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