Ticked Off

Time used to be on my side. But that was before it was measured so precisely.

There are two clocks in my office. One is connected through the ether to the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, whose quantum-logic clock is so precise it will not gain or lose more than one second in 3.7 billion years. The other clock was made for me by Bob Hatch, an Indianapolis retiree, who carved every gear from hard maple, cut the hands on his band saw, made the weight by filling a tomato-paste can with lead he’d melted with a plumber’s torch, and fashioned the verge escapement from a piece of steel and the pendulum from cherry wood and brass. That clock gains or loses a couple of minutes a day, depending on such factors as the humidity and whether my dog Zipper accidentally jostles it when she naps on the shelf underneath it.

The quantum-logic clock is manned by numerous scientists and technicians. The National Institute of Standards and Technology has a Civil Rights and Diversity Office, so there’s a good chance some of the people “manning” the clock are actually women. Bob Hatch and I gave civil rights and diversity little thought when my clock was built, though when I drove to his house to pick up the clock, my mother went along for the ride. When Bob took me to the basement to show me his workshop, his wife advised him not to fall and bust a hip, so women have been involved right along.

I’m turning 50 next month, a milestone I’ve been looking forward to for some time. Fifty is the age when you can begin to chalk up your eccentricities to advanced years. I have more than a few quirks, one of them being my distrust of the quantum-logic clock in Boulder, Colorado, having learned that the more people it takes to run any outfit, the less dependable it is. My wooden clock is a one-man operation. I wind it the first thing every morning, and every month or so I adjust the pendulum bob for accuracy. Because I avoid any activity that requires split-second precision, my clock suits me perfectly

I have fond memories of imprecision. When I was a kid, the time-and-temperature signs outside the two banks in our town never agreed. On any given day, they were four or five minutes apart. Compounding the problem was the town’s fire department, which blasted the town whistle each day at noon, give or take a few minutes, depending on the promptness of Mrs. Hope, the dispatcher, whose job it was to sound the alarm. Sometimes, if she wanted to get to the Coffee Cup before it got too crowded, she would blast the noon whistle at 11:45. The whistle would shriek, and people all over town would pause to set their watches—except for the bank people, who stuck to their own versions of chronology, however mistaken, come hell or high water.

The downfall of timekeeping began in the 1970s when some unimaginative watchmaker decided to show the time with numbers instead of hands. When watches had hands, there was a built-in latitude to time—9:42-9:48 was reported as “a quarter to 10.” Everyone involved knew that was a general report, not a specific one, but sufficient for the purposes of getting you to your 10 a.m. doctor’s appointment on time. A few minutes before or after noon was close enough to noon to be called noon. Noon used to be that time when both hands on a watch were pointed generally upward. No one measured them to make sure both hands were precisely vertical. Now that time is reported as 11:59 or 12:01, the cushion is gone, and we’re rushing about fretting and anxious.

In the 23 years I’ve known my best friend, Jim Mulholland, he’s never worn a watch. He’ll tell anyone who’ll listen he doesn’t want to be a slave to time. The fact that he asks me the time whenever we are together is beside the point. He recently began carrying a cell phone, which he regularly pulls from his pocket to check the time, though he still doesn’t wear a watch. Like many purists, he’s found a way to circumvent the rules.Mr. Robert Leedy, a teacher from my youth, fascinated generations of Danville schoolchildren by telling time by the sun. He would pause in his lecture, wander over to the classroom window, study the sun, and announce the time. On cloudy days he used the classroom clock like everyone else.

The biggest waste of money is an expensive watch, since even inexpensive watches work as well as pricey ones. Twenty-five years ago, I purchased a watch from L.L. Bean for $89. Because they offer lifetime guarantees on their products, I’ve had it replaced three times. I wore an L.L. Bean watch every day for 23 years, until I began carrying a cell phone that told me the time. Now that everyone is carrying cell phones, no one is buying watches anymore. The people at Timex are probably eating Tums by the bucketload. But it’s their fault. If they had stuck with watch hands instead of digital numbers, they wouldn’t be in this mess.

While my fondness for imprecision is growing, more folks these days are worshiping at the altar of exactitude. This has had unforeseen consequences, most of them bad. Consider what’s happened to cooking since the quantum-logic clock was invented. Our grandmothers used to “throw this-and-that” in a pot, add “a dash-or-dab” of “one-thing-or-another,” then warm it in the stove “an-hour-or-so.” Today’s cooking has become like chemistry, mixing precise amounts in far-away laboratories, and then packaging the result and shipping it across the country by diesel truck. We then microwave this plasticized slop to the split-second so we can eat it, get cancer, and die. On the upside, think of the time we save!

When I purchased my clock from Bob Hatch, I asked him how long it was guaranteed. He said it was guaranteed for the rest of his life. The fact that he was in his early 80s didn’t bother him or me. For 10 years, it has ticked away, five feet to my left when I sit and write. I write six hours a day, five days a week, so I’ve heard it tick more than 56 million times. The clock with all that quantum logic in Colorado hasn’t made a peep that whole time, except twice when the batteries were low and it beeped to let me know. There is no doubt that the scientists and technicians in Boulder, Colorado, are bright people. But I like the sound of time, the rhythmic click when the verge escapement engages a cog and turns a gear, and the keeping of it is best entrusted to an elderly man in Indianapolis, with sawdust in his hair, carrying forward the noble art of chronology in his basement workshop.

This column originally appeared in the January 2011 issue.