Friday, January 11, 2013

No Time like The Present

I am completely fascinated by the concept of time and how relative our experiences in it are. Not as Einstein experienced relativity, perhaps, but according to how we live in "real time." As marked by the Atomic Clock on the grounds of the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., right next to the Vice President's house, it is exquisitely metered to match the most minute changes, marked to the infinitesimal and mostly unobserved interactions of atoms. This is, in fact, Washington time: moving faster than the eye can see.

So tied today are we to the unfolding of our devices, that my young adult children cannot even imagine wearing a watch. Why rely on such an unfashionable accessory when the time is as close as your cell phone or tablet that signal and ring to tweets and texts as your friends and family clocks in? Most of the clocks in our house measure time in hours, minutes and seconds -- like most of yours, I'd imagine. But, except for timepieces in my bedroom and kitchen (all the better to time the microwave oven, my dear), most of those sporting long-dead batteries are only accurate two times a day. Not a reliable timepiece for the incalculable meetings, class schedules, phone calls and appointments that govern any of our lives. And, of course, we have daylight savings time, an arbitrary adjustment twice a year to give us more daylight around the edges.

This is of more than academic interest to me: having just completed a time travel screenplay that juxtaposes Washington, D.C., today to the slower rhythms of 15th century Florence, Italy, it was not just modern ideas that proved alien as our heroes found themselves moving back 500 years; but even any urgency to act in any given moment that separated my time travelers from their unwitting Renaissance hosts.

It turns out, we've been measuring the pace of life in this way since the 18th century, as a way to bring some order to the chaotic speeding-up of life around us. Prior to that, grand cathedrals featuring astronomical clocks timed with mechanical movements show that day's version of animation sounded the hour and quarter hour in and around towns that centered on their regularity, but these soundings may have varied from town-to-town and even church-to-church, making meetings tied to their appointed chiming approximate, at best.

Here is the daily show at the Cathedral de Notre Dame in Strasbourg, France, where you will even hear roosters crowing as the angels proceed on their mechanical march of time, as they have done since the 12th century.

The clock-keeper of the cathedral played an important role in the community; once overtaken to Swiss perfection by the wind-up clock and watch, to electrical wall socket and, increasingly, in the past half-century or so, by battery. At the same time, the mechanisms that govern its functioning have moved to analog to digital with increasing precision.

So not only has our conception of time evolved, but the instruments of measurement have moved from the town square to inside our homes, wall-to-wrist, and finally wrist-to-digital pocket. But I am interested in a larger question: are we better off today, governed as we are by the ever-changing second hand? Has increasing reliance on chronology led us away from healthy circadian rhythms?

For those of us pondering how our sense of the present has grown so divorced from even recent pasts here is a novel re-creation: The Present. An beautifully elegant new timepiece that marks the passage of seasons may help us renew our appreciation for that most elusive of all moments: the present.

Despite the much-hyped 2012 winter solstice, and apparently inaccurate Mayan predictions of end-times, perhaps we are now ready to usher in this new time, The Present, with the calm and wonder it deserves.

Thinking that, whatever time zone you're living in and whatever system you use to measure that, now is the only time we've got. So here's to now: all in good time.