Watching out for the future

There’s a good reason they call it a “watch.”

The timepiece that first filled our vest pockets before migrating to our wrists basically just sits there all day, waiting for those few occasions when you look at it to determine where the sun is in its transit across the sky, and if it’s time yet to turn on “Oprah.” You watch the watch to get periodic updates about how you’re progressing toward your eventual demise. One minute it’s a quarter past, and the next thing you know it’s time for your last rites.

In this technologically advanced era, the watch is becoming an anachronism. We need so much more information to operate effectively in a complicated world than just the time. Certainly, it helped a few decades back when watch-makers added features like calculators and the day of the month. If you found yourself urgently needing to know how much 36 times 18 was, you had the answer right there at your fingertips, assuming your fingers had the circumference of a pencil point.

Now, we need to know not only the time, but we also have to keep constantly apprised of the latest stock quotes, what’s going on with our Twitter feed, and exactly how angry the birds have become. So we all carry smartphones, and the older ones among us look on with regret as the watch is being inexorably replaced.

Recently, the plastic band on my Timex Ironman Triathlon wore out. At first I thought renewed efforts to lose weight were starting to pay off, and my shrinking wrist was no longer able to hold the watch securely in place. Then, it dropped to the floor, and I realized the strap had worn completely through.

For years, Timex and the other leviathans of the time-keeping industry have marketed products so reliable that they virtually never broke. You could buy a digital mechanism at almost any retail store and it would run forever. When manufacturers figured out how negatively this could impact their profits, they built obsolescence into the straps, sending us scurrying over to Target every six months or so to buy a new band. Then we had to sign up for a special course at the local community college to figure out how to put it on.

This time, though, I looked at my old watch and its broken band, and I looked at my new touchscreen cell phone, and I figured I didn’t really need both. So now my trusty Ironman sits collecting dust on my dresser while I try to get used to the idea of looking at my phone display when I want to know the time.

I was a relatively late adopter of the watch when I was growing up. You didn’t really need one while you were going to school, as a giant clock invariably hung from the wall at the front of the classroom showing a constant display of how much longer Mr. Blaskey was going to drone on about the Napoleonic Wars. For kids, time tends to drag slowly by. You don’t need an incessant reminder of how long it takes for an hour to pass.

About the only thing worse than watching the big Westclox above the door in third-period history was sitting in church through a 30-minute-long Lutheran sermon, and monitoring the passage of time by only the incremental changes in the inflection of the minister’s voice. When he finally said something like “and so my friends,” you knew it was almost time to “praise God from who all blessings flow” and make a beeline for the free cookies in the fellowship hall.

Even when I first went off to college, I didn’t wear a watch. In the turbulent seventies, we regarded time as an oppressive manifestation of The Man trying to control our lives. We’d shamble from class to class, stopping a while to sit cross-legged in the Quad and admire the beauty of a tiny wildflower before wandering in to Econ 201 a few minutes late. Promptness and tardiness were concepts we were only vaguely aware of. It was far more important to experience the fullness of life through a few tosses of the Frisbee and a few tokes of a joint than to be seated in a lecture hall at precisely 10:20 a.m.

Besides, it never felt natural to me to have foreign objects like watches attached to different parts of my body. I didn’t wear any jewelry or rings, and certainly didn’t have any piercings or studs. I had a few pieces of amalgam implanted in teeth that had been invaded by cavities, but that was about the extent of my adornment.

It wasn’t until toward the end of my college years that I first bought a watch and started wearing it. This was around the start of the jogging craze, and as I picked up what would become a lifelong exercise habit, I thought it might be interesting to track my progress around the neighborhood. Using the chronometer feature and the “lap/reset” button, I could pursue my goal of breaking the ten-minute mile.

Gradually, I got used to the idea of having several ounces of plastic wrapped around my forearm, and it proved to be increasingly helpful as I entered the business world to know the precise time. I started getting a kick out of checking in with the master atomic clock in Washington, D.C., and synchronizing my own timepiece down to the second. Showing up at places you said you’d be at the time you promised to be there became a critical skill in staying employed.

It became even more important when I started to travel on business. The major airlines weren’t especially forgiving of those who ran a few minutes late, as I learned the hard way one winter night spent looking for a hotel near the Chicago airport when I was instead supposed to be high over the Atlantic on my way to India. When I finally did make it to the subcontinent, I was careful to advance the numbers on my watch by ten-and-a-half hours into the future, so I could better appreciate how the developing world was starting to move as fast if not faster than life in America.

Now, as I get to that time in my life when I can see retirement on the distant horizon, I’m faced again with adjusting my relationship with the temporal world. The travel opportunities have gone away, and I’m now spending most of my time at work sitting in front of a computer terminal that constantly displays the current hour in the bottom right-hand corner. As I get older, I notice that time seems to be moving more quickly than it ever did while I was waiting for the bell to signal the end of the school day.

So maybe this is the right opportunity to decrease my dependence on arbitrary measures of the aging of the universe. I’m not going to replace my watchband but instead will rely on my cellphone and the countless other displays of the time we seem to have all around us these days. I’m going to ease into my golden years with less stress on punctuality, and a greater emphasis on less stress.

If only I can get used to this new installation on my arm …

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2 Responses to “Watching out for the future”

  1. Paul Dixon Says:

    The picture shows how stylish your new “watch” is, but it looks like it would inhibit the flexion of your wrist.

    I’ll never stop wearing a wristwatch. I still do a double-take when I see a young person pick up their iPhone to check the time.

  2. Paul Dixon Says:

    P.S.-‘Leviathan’ is capitalized, fyi. 🙂

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