Thursday, November 03, 2011

The invisible cage

      Guy stops me on the street to say the meeting has been moved from morning to afternoon. “That a problem?” he asks.

Only that I have to be in three places at the same time. Other than that, no problemo.

Back at the office I pore over my daily planner. The month is bleeding away but apparently determined to squeeze the life out of every minute, and the following day’s penciled notations seemed to have mutated like some self-propagating bacteria so that they spread page by page to the cradle of a new year. One memo, written in red to highlight its importance, proved utterly indecipherable, and no amount of rotating, retracing or shaking would realign the letters into a semblance of legibility. I wondered if that meant I could skip whatever it was I was supposed to attend.

Somewhere in the back of my mind was a recollection of a favorite passage in a book by Jim Harrison where he arrives at a cabin in the wilds of northern Michigan, only to find a clock on the wall. The cabin is rustic, almost primitive, tenuously connected to the outside world by a slender thread of rutted road, an ideal place to shuck off the trappings of civilization and commune with the written word and a nearby trout stream, neither more nor less than the black bears and badgers in the yard or the wolves that howl at night. And here’s this clock, ticking and tocking to the beats of his heart, rhythmic and unwavering until he gingerly removes it from the wall, takes it outside and sets it on a stump. It’s still ticking when he returns with his shotgun. 

When I used to go backpacking it took me three days to become acclimated to life without the artificial contrivances of timekeeping. Though I had a rough idea of what day of the week it was—mostly through the amount of food in my pack—my days were broken down into morning, evening and the the sunlit gap separating the two. Time as defined as a moment measured in hours and minutes had been left behind at the trailhead. It wasn’t merely the city I was escaping from, but the invisible cage of the calendar.

I’m certainly no expert in the history of calendars but from what I’ve gleaned the earliest examples of timekeeping were based on harvests, important events, solstices and phases of the moon. In some parts of the world, Egypt, for instance, calendars were created to chart seasonal fluctuations timed to favorable planting periods, such as the flooding of the Nile. The Romans tried perfecting the regulated system of days and weeks into a cohesive whole matching the solar cycle but superstitions about even numbers foretold certain doom. Nor do solar and lunar cycles synchronize, leaving today’s Gregorian calendar an awkward haphazardness with shortcomings that require the occasional leap year as corrective.

How mankind went from timing seasonal, solar or lunar cycles to a slavish adherence to the calendar and the clock puzzles me. I suspect at heart we crave symmetry with the uneven and unequal gyrations of celestial objects, also that the Industrial Age ordained an almost religious onus on regularity and timeliness. We’ve debased this to the point where social status often hangs on promptness or habitual tardiness. The early bird gets the worm, we’re bribed, which as we all know is rarely the case.

I shouldn’t complain for my workweek doesn’t require time clocks or traditional hours of operation but instead consists of deadlines, some critical and others more lenient depending upon, of course, the day of the week. But like Harrison I prefer a life without constraint, however much it eludes me. As I write this I’m surrounded by reminders of the month, the day of the week, the hour, the minute and the second, which results not only in keeping me focused but sometimes induces guilt for dallying when I should be laboring. More problematic is the constant awareness of the shortening of my time on this earth. Too much knowledge is a two-edged sword, the yang to the yin. I long for the day when I can take my daily planner and toss it in the trash, when I at long last live for myself and for the things that sustain me, when I can say with all honesty that I’m busy that morning/afternoon/evening, sorry, that particular time just doesn’t work for me.


shoreacres said...

Can't believe it - we're both writing about time this week.

I remember the days of time clocks and day planners with something akin to horror. If I suddenly weren't capable of varnishing, I'm not sure I'd be able to move into "the workforce" in any more formal way. The thought of running my life according to calendars and clocks is... distressing.

On the other hand, the lack of formal time constraints makes internal discipline critical. I'm still working on that.

Tom Parker said...

Internal discipline is indeed critical. However, I think I'll take a nap now while I mull it over.