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Sunday, April 14, 2024 — Houston, TX

Life's a Mitch: Why keep time when others do?

By Mitch Mackowiak     2/4/15 8:33am

After lunch I walked to the central quad to work in the fine weather. I found a seat and checked the phone to see what time remained before class at one o'clock.

The phone was dead.

The unlit screen brought me slight panic. I'll be late! Should I move within sight of a public clock? No, I realized after a moment, I do not have to move. The campus is a clock. When steady streams of students stride by my table, I would know the time.

Ignorance of the time left me buzzed. I felt vulnerable but enlivened, as you do when biking without a helmet to further relish the velocity as the wind plays your hair. I could not track the dwindling minutes, so they did not dwindle. The campus clock is accurate within two minutes.

After class I left the phone dead and returned to the quad to read. I carried no power but felt empowered. This will be an afternoon without time, I silently declared. I felt like I was getting away with something. Shouldn't you regularly consult a clock? After who knows how long some nearby church bells tolled me the hour. Not long ago no one owned clocks, and cathedrals or clock towers kept everyone's hours.

My jaunt without time ended after dinner. But should it remain a jaunt? I only check the time frequently because it sits, imprisoned, on the phone's lock screen. The phone forces time on me. Why does a clock hog the lock screen? It is not a clock screen. No option exists to free it, so it remains.

The phone should not advertise time! Let the lock screen greet me as a clean slate. Or, if the clock must stay, let it represent time without numbers. Digital time gives you temporal tunnel vision. When you see 1:25, you do not see 1:24 or 1:26, as you would on an analog clock. 1:25 anchors you to a too-precise, quickly obsolete present. If you watch the screen change from 1:25 to 1:26, do you see the present? On New Year's Eve, New York watches a ball descend, not a digital clock blink from 11:59 to 12:00.

Like the New Year's Eve ball, analog clocks display the space in between time's divisions. You can see the gap between 1:25 and 1:26 even though it has no name. This is why the time lapses you see in movies or TV work better with analog clocks. Sundials trump analogs (except on clouded days) because they mark time in tangible form. You can feel the cool cast of time's shadow.

You see the deficiency of digital clocks when you reduce their accuracy. You could erase the minute-markers from an analog clock face and it would still work well. What if digital clocks only registered the hour?

If the phone clock told me only the hour, it is no better than the church-bells, but for time that ambiguity is good. Unchecked time is free time. It allows you to perceive time however long or short it may feel, because everyone perceives time differently. When you establish a standard time and check it, so too do you check your experience of time, keeping it from wandering like a dog constantly tugged by the impatient master.

So my phone frequently forces me this most segmented and abstracted time, and on that day in the quad, when I was denied it, I was freed. In that afternoon all moments stretched and shrunk, breathing, not contained in the empty vessels we call minutes.

If you want time to live, do not entomb it in minutes and seconds. Tower bells oblige the hours.

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