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Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?
by Deborah Markus

"A clever French inventor in the late seventeenth century...designed a clock so arranged that when he reached for the hour hand at night, it guided him to a small container with a spice inserted in place of numbers, a different spice for each hour of the night. Even when he could not see the clock, he could always taste the time." --Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers

The gods confound the man who first found out How to distinguish hours! --Plautus

ome like to throw a party for Father Time and his infant successor on New Year's Eve. I admit I'm not much of a one for hoopla, but there is one night of the year that tempts me to down a glass of champagne and dance on the refrigerator. I'm talking of course about that holiday not long gone: the end of Daylight Saving Time. For me, this is one of the most exciting times of the year. Not just because I'll finally get back that hour stolen from me months ago without so much as a by-yourleave. Not just because I'm thrilled to be finally waking up with a little sunlight for company -- that won't last, will it? But because, just for a little while, everyone's watch will say the same thing.   That to me is a miracle far surpassing water to wine or lengthening of days. It's a greater reason for thanksgiving than anything a bunch of guys in conical hats and buckle shoes could come up with. Because I get tired of picking which watch I'm going to wear not on the basis of what else I'm wearing, but where I'm going. My days and weeks are fairly predictable, and I've become dismally attuned to the foibles of the clocks awaiting me at my several destinations.

The library with my small son's story time has the cruelest timepiece of all. It's one of those corporate clocks that is set twice a year by some mysterious stranger and left to do as it pleases the rest of the time. None of the librarians can budge it a New York nanosecond, not that I'd accuse any of them of half trying. It's a good five minutes ahead of all but my fastest watch, and if you think five minutes isn't so much -- is easy to make up even on a rushed morning -- just watch five minutes go by when you're trying to get yourself and your three-year-old and your library books and the cookies you promised to bring to thank the librarian for that special special requested tome (plus she forgives your fines and lets you go a book or two past your card max in an emergency, so you have to keep on her good side) and the picnic lunch because your son talked you into going to the park afterward and you won't have time to go home for lunch first and WHERE IS THE PEANUT BUTTER? WHO IN THE NAME OF GOD MOVED THE PEANUT BUTTER? and story time only lasts twenty minutes, which means five minutes suddenly takes on the awesome responsibility of being 25% of something. Plus your son will flip out if you miss the first word of the first page of the first story. And you're on foot, because your husband needed the car today. And the road winds uphill all the way, just like that chipper old Christina Rossetti poem says, not that you have time to read anymore because you're too busy trying to figure out what time it is according to whom.

(Forget going by those public, out-in-allweather timepieces, by the by. They are either laughably, and misleadingly, optimistic -- hey, relax! You've got time for one more latte! Really! -- or clinically insane, muttering to themselves like anyone who's been on the street too long. You'll pass them at 10:30 one morning and they'll give you a sullen 4:03, and then the very next day you'll pass at exactly the same time and see that they've decided to make it 7:49. Public entertainment at its finest.)

The other domesticated clocks on my weekly route -- YMCA, aquarium, Music Together -- are fairly forgiving. They're all a minute or two ahead of what that tacky phone-lady voice would say if you asked -- are they going to have to replace her at some point? will they hold auditions for sounding the most like Donna Reed holding her nose? -- but I expect that. I live in the city.

My mother-in-law doesn't, and it's touching how implicitly she relies on that voice on the phone. Whenever she comes out from the big bad suburbs to visit me and her grandson, we always have these exchanges about what time it "really" is, and she hauls out her atomic-clock watch and explains how it can't possibly be wrong. Which has exactly nothing to do with the point, which is that it doesn't matter what time it really is. All that matters is what time enough people think it is. Kind of a Zen thing.

Except it isn't, because it's really about power. Look at doctor office clocks. Have you ever seen one that is running one second slow? Please. I'm surprised that they aren't full half an hour ahead of what the rest of us are going by. They're certainly a good seven minutes ahead of Zippy, my speed-demon watch. That way all those nurturing souls in the reception area can blame we the patients for throwing their schedules off and justify our threehour wait for the doctor. Oh, sure, my husband happened this year to go to the doctor the Monday after Daylight Saving ended, and he said that the clock there agreed with his watch perfectly. He said that probably the clocks, not being perfect, tend to run a little fast, that they start slipping ahead the way all clocks and watches will go at their own imperfect paces and so by the time they're reset again, for Saving Time or the end of it, they just happen to be on the wrong side of the fight between the poor sickly souls who just happen to be PAYING all those doctors and nurses and --

Well. Anyway. Hurrah for this festive season, when our clocks and watches have something even remotely to do with what time it may actually be. As opposed to that lovely midsummer day when my son's babysitter and I had no idea what time it was, though we were both wearing watches. She gets ten dollars an hour, which is of course two-fifty the quarter hour, which means that once again five little minutes start taking on an inflated importance and I am something less than sanguine at the idea of letting her go five seconds before her two hours here are genuinely up. And so, having forgotten to check her arrival time against the big clock in the front room (an old-timer, he keeps a leisurely pace) I reluctantly pulled myself away from my writing desk and asked her if it was time for her to leave yet, and she said she had no idea, and I knew exactly what she meant. She meant that although she and I have known each other long enough for me to trust my only child in her hands, our watches are not acquainted and may see no reason to necessarily agree on anything. So I told her to go ahead and go home, and then I prayed for the days to pass quickly. I don't care that the end of Daylight Saving Time means that it gets dark "earlier" now. I'd be happy for the sun to set at noon, if only all of us, my babysitter and my mother-in-law and the telephone lady, could be agreed that it was in fact noon and not a minute past. Or five minutes past.

Of course, I would no sooner set my watch by what the phone says, even this time of year, than I would French kiss a frog. I didn't get all the way out of bed this morning just so I could be ON TIME. I have a dream. Call it an early New Year's resolution. I'm going to be beyond punctual! I'm going to be EARLY!

Hey, if some guy could tell it was three in the morning because the clock said cinnamon, I can be five minutes ahead of the rest of the world for once.