October 31, 1995
Time bears away all things, even our minds.
Have you got a minute? Come to that, have you got an hour? We appear to have lost one last weekend. Or maybe we gained one. We’re never quite certain just after the semiannual ritual of Fiddling with the Clocks, an exercise that prompts our semiannual rumination: Why do we do this?
Thomas Mann wrote that “time has no divisions to mark its passage.” A fat lot he knew. We humans are separated from the lower animals not by our superior intellect nor by our capacity for language nor by our opposed thumb, but by our obsession with time — our unrelenting compulsion to divide it, subdivide it and then move the subdivisions around.
We don’t know what we’re fooling around with. We literally don’t have a clue. Read a thousand poets, you’ll get a thousand metaphors. Yeats called time “an endless song.” Lord Byron said it was “the beautifier of the dead.” Poets have compared time to everything from “an iron gate” to a “flowing river,” from a “bridge” to a “silent sickle.” They tell us that time marches or flies or flows or creeps or leaps. They have variously endowed time with wings, legs, oars, sails and wheels to speed it on its way.
We don’t have a clue, yet we keep fooling around with time.
Look at the temporal subdivisions we’ve dreamed up: seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, fortnights, months, years, decades, centuries, millennia. Look at the incomprehensible way we regard them. We find nothing remarkable about, say, the passing of a month. Each one arrives and departs without fanfare. But let 12 of them sail past and we must break out the party hats, boil the shrimp, chill the wine and hire a band. Why is it that 12 unremarkable months, when clumped together in a year, call for champagne and skyrockets? It must be part of the human condition.
Perhaps we celebrate because we stand in awe of what we can’t keep track of. We currently use the Gregorian calendar, worked out in the 1500s by Pope Gregory XIII. Before that it was the Julian calendar, named for Julius Caesar. And before that, the Greeks, the Egyptians and the Babylonians each thought they had put time in a box.
Fooling around with calendars has occasionally stirred up trouble. When Britain officially switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, for instance, an act of Parliament decreed that Sept. 2 would be followed by Sept. 14 — a sort of temporal leap to get in step with the band of the universe. But the British workingman wasn’t having any of it. Convinced they were somehow being cheated out of 12 days’ wages, laboring blokes rioted in the streets.
We get an echo of their confusion today, when the semiannual Fiddling with the Clocks causes people on the graveyard shift to experience a suspicious gain or loss of an hour’s work. And all of us get the equivalent of an involuntary jet trip to an adjacent time zone — eastbound in the spring, westbound in the fall.
Rather than continue following the ritualistic rules of Spring Forward and Fall Back — with the havoc they play on our circadian rhythms and VCRs — perhaps we ought to set our clocks by a new rule: Stay Put.