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Gimme a smile: Watching the time

Posted: March 4, 2012 - 1:01am

Make sure you’re on time. Check the time so you won’t be late. What time is it anyway?

I don’t wear a watch. It’s not that I don’t care what time it is. I’m not trying to make a statement about the need to break free from the tyranny of time-watching, or anything. I just don’t like to wear things around my wrist.

I used to wear a watch, back in the old days when you had to wind watches to start them ticking. I didn’t know my own strength. I would always over-wind the darn thing, and then it would stop working. I killed a few good watches that way. Who knows—maybe I was trying to snuff out that annoying ticking.

My watch would get wet whenever I washed my hands. I hated the feel of soggy leather against my skin, and the face would get all fogged up so I couldn’t even tell what time it was. I would have a moisture-collecting, steamed up bracelet around my wrist with a decorative circle whose hands stayed fixed on 3:14. Twice a day I would know what time it was, if I could see past the condensation.

So I gave up on the wristwatch concept, and for years I knew where every wall clock was in every public building I was likely to enter. Most places, like grocery stores, libraries or schools, have clocks prominently displayed for their patrons. Sometimes you can find a clock on the wall in a restaurant, although a slow waiter might prefer that you not know what time it is. But one place I’ve never seen a clock is in a doctor’s exam room. Doctors don’t want you timing how long they leave you sitting on the examining table, shivering in that paper gown.

Even if a clock is not in evidence, a creative person can still figure out the time without resorting to checking the sun (a singularly unreliable system here in Juneau). When I worked as a cashier in high school (back before cash registers registered the time) I perfected the technique of sneaking glimpses of my customers’ wristwatches as they came through the line. They may have thought I was casing out their gold Rolexes, but I just wanted to know what time it was. Buddy, can you spare the time?

I still don’t wear a watch. But I do carry the time around with me ­— on the cell phone in my pocket. Using a cell phone to tell the time is much more obtrusive than a discrete glance at your wristwatch. My phone flips open like Captain Kirk’s communicator — nothing subtle about checking the time in the middle of a boring meeting. I might as well call out, “Beam me up, Scotty,” and get it over with.

My cell phone is well known on the school playground during a cold, rainy recess. The kids come up to ask me what time it is, or when recess will be over. Of course I can’t give them a straight answer — I make them work for it. First I make them guess what time it is, to see how well they’re tuned in to those rhythms of nature. Then I whip out my phone and show them how close they were. If they want to know when they can finally come in out of the rain, I’ll give them a story problem: “If it’s 12:25 now and recess is over at 12:40, how many more minutes of recess do we have left?” Just because they’re outside doesn’t mean they can’t do math, right?

I do like telling time on my cell phone, though. Just like a little kid I once knew, it’s always right. It’s in sync with some satellite out in space, so that it operates on the same time waves as every other cell phone on the planet. Spies no longer need to synchronize their watches — the satellites take care of all that. And you don’t even have to wind the darn thing.

So I always know what time it is. That doesn’t mean I’ll be on time, though. It just means that I’ll know it when I’m late. What time is it, anyway?

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