On the face of it

I can still see the carton. Smudged with oil and dust, the corners crumbling away, the auctioneer didn't have much to say about it. I bought it, I think, for 50 cents.* Scratching around inside, I found sundry bits of threaded steel, a doorknob and some old pieces of lock, a patent medicine bottle filled with lead shot odds and ends, a magazine of miscellaneous articles. It was nothing more than a testament to Yankee don't-throw-it-away thrift, telling as much about New England as the auctioneer's tent and the peeling clapboards on the nearby barn. Otherwise it was unremarkable -- except that, in one corner, was an old tin-plated alarm clock.

It was the sort you see in the funny papers being hurled from bedroom windows at yowling tomcats -- the round kind with stubby legs and a bell mounted on the top. In its day, no doubt, a journeyman clock, cheap, popular, and unfailingly serviceable. But its day had long since ticked past, and (as the auctioneer probably knew) the clock no longer ran.

That summer we lived in a New Hampshire farmhouse aswarm with carpenters. Our own tools we kept, along with an old desk and the laundry soap, in a slantceilinged closet under the stairs. We called it, affectionately, the shopette. One morning, with nothing better to do, I retreated into its sweet-smelling interior with the clock, some kerosene, and plenty of time on my hands. Soon the entire thing was reduced to a jumble of gears sitting in jars of the solvent, and I entertained passing despair over its resurrection. But neither time nor memory failed, and to my delight it came together, got itself wound, and resumed ticking. It's no longer in our house; but I have it on good authority that, 15 years later, it is still running.

I thought of it the other day as I glanced at the clock on our piano. It stopped, years ago, at the tantalizing hour of 5:15. It cannot, we are told, be easily fixed. But as it is a lovely clock -- a wedding present, in fact -- we are loath to sell it. Neither are we inclined to hide it away, so elegant are its lines. Nor, in these days when time no longer seems to hang in great bunches like fruit ripe for the plucking, am I disposed to set after it with tools. So we simply let it sit, a memento of our own paradoxical response to its message. We delight in its design, setting it out for all to see. But we carefully discount its function -- and pointedly ignore its continuing of misinformation.

What surprised me, however, was to discover that I had grown accustomed to treating other clocks in the same way. Each morning, for some months, I drove past an old church in our small town whose white-boarded steeple proudly displays clockfaces on its four sides. I was always on my way to work, and it was always about five minutes to seven. What made me suspicious, however, was the fact that the clock, day after day, said five to seven. I ignored it: obviously, like most tower clocks (of their large brass-handed cousins in railway stations and courthouse lobbies) it had simply stopped. The other day, jarred from my routine, I had occasion to drive past an hour later. The clock, to my astonishment, said eight.

Somewhere in here, I thought to myself, is a dilemma. How unthinkable it would be to propose that all stopped clocks be uprooted and replaced by inoffensive circular panels. Yet how much, in the name of design, have we grown tolerant of falsehoods -- so much so that we assume inaccuracy where none exists. I suppose it hasn't done us all that much harm: for which of us has not got, somewhere within us, a built-in mechanism that alerts us to ignore some clocks and believe others? And which of us has not got about us, in our drawers or on our shelves, at least one clock or watch that long since gave up the tick? Yet none among us, it seems, has the courage to winnow out these perpetual tellers of untruths. We live with them, forgiving them their debts of dishonesty for the sake of their beauty and balance. We are, I suppose, a redemptive bunch.

But the timeS, it seems, may be against us. I have yet to see a steeple with a digital clock; but where, these days, is the city that does not have a local bank with a blinking signlike slab thrust out above the sidewalk and flashing out the time? Where, if the ads are to be believed, is the household witout a degital clock-radio, the wrist without a digital watch: Fine: progress rolls apace, and we with it. And when these electronic marvels halt, what takes over? Blankness, darkness. Unlike their circular ancestors, they do not put on perpetual record the exact moment they stopped. Neither do they lie. For they never really recorded anything in the first place. Only bleeps of light. Only an illusive message, flashed out to anyone who thought it mattered, vanishing into the void of its own passing. The future holds no danger from their falsehoods: our pianos will not soon be decorated in blank black squares where time used to be. Their beauty holds no brief for us. We will chuck them out, get ourselves new ones.

And it is there, dear reader, that I come upon the dilemma. I do not own a digital watch. I love the old round kind. Am I clinging to that which, sooner or later, will tell me lies? Or am I holding fast to that which, even when function disappears, still speaks of beauty? And if so, am I glorifying time when I should be attending to eternity? Or am I cherishing that sense of having ample, slow time to accomplish things -- time, for example, to fix clocks -- which seems, of all qualities, the one that so characterizes youth and is so easily lost in maturity?

I don't know. I suppose I agree with Alexander Pope, who lived in an age when all clocks were round:

'Tis with our judgments as our watches, nonem

Go just alike, yet each believes his own.m

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