Keeping track of time, minute by minute, has become a modern preoccupation. There are planes to catch. Meetings to attend. Friends to meet. Television shows to watch. No wonder the wristwatch ranks as a nearly indispensable part of most people's lives.
Still, here and there, a few brave holdouts remain. Late one evening last week, in the cozy lounge of a hotel in Cornwall, England, a British woman named Liz, on a biking holiday with her husband, Paul, asked a simple question: "Can you tell us the time, please?" As if to explain the request, she added, "We don't wear watches."
No watches? Ever? How can a busy professional couple function without watches? She is a landscape architect, he an academic who commutes 50 miles each way by train to London every day.
"I never miss a train, and I'm never late for a meeting," Paul says proudly, adding that his father never wore a watch either. Since their children's school doesn't allow students to wear watches until they are 9, the family remains totally watch-free.
Liz explains her strategy. "There are clocks everywhere," she says. "My computer has a clock. My phone has a clock. My car has a clock." So does the microwave, the stove, the radio, and the VCR.
With their efficient and easygoing manner, Liz and Paul serve as appealing advertisements for a watch-free life. Studying them, a watch-dependent American wonders: Do they have a different sense of time than those of us who are bound by ticking hands strapped to our wrist?
I decide to test their approach. For three days I leave my watch at home. Suddenly I'm newly aware of just how many clocks - most of them small and digital - exist everywhere. The one exception: shopping malls. Retailers hope customers will lose themselves in the moment, blissfully unaware of time as they shop and spend.
All day Saturday, on my usual round of errands, I keep glancing at my bare wrist, where a slight indentation from the strap outlines the watch's usual spot. Its absence is alternately discomfiting and exhilarating. By Sunday evening, I wonder: Is it only a coincidence that this is one of the most productive weekends I've spent recently?
On the fourth day, I happily buckle on my watch again, relieved to have an old friend back. But its return raises a question: Is a watch a delicate handcuff of sorts, tying wearers to an unnecessary servitude? Or is it a liberator, freeing them from the need to look for clocks or ask others for the time?
As part of the experiment, I also asked assorted friends and acquaintances about their watches. One man tried going without a watch when he retired. "You're off the clock," he reasoned. "It's a symbol of freedom." But the symbol never translated into anything tangible. "It didn't work," he says. For others who tried equally unsuccessfully to go watch-less, the most common response is: "I felt lost without it."
What a change from the centuries when the sun served as the clock, dictating dawn-to-dusk routines. And what a shift from an era when people measured time primarily in 15-minute increments as grandfather clocks majestically bonged the quarter hours.
For those in the generations before wristwatches, checking the time was a deliberate act, a process. Men would reach into a tiny slit in their vest to pull out a pocket watch attached to a gold fob. Women who wore a watch on a chain around the neck had to open a gold cover to read the time. Did hours and minutes pass less frantically for them?
"The time which we have at our disposal every day is elastic," Proust wrote. Twenty-first-century Americans, living in a round-the-clock culture, might disagree. Armed with day planners and Palm Pilots and watches, they try valiantly to plan their days down to the last nanosecond. Ah, efficiency. Ah, folly.
Perhaps Liz and Paul have the right idea. When the question is: "What time is it?" one answer might be, Time to take a walk in the spring sunshine and figure ways to build a little more Proustian elasticity into overcrowded days.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society