A matter of time

It was a digital wristwatch, encountered during a visit to Hong Kong half a dozen years ago, that first plunged me into musings about time. Time watch was a gold-encrusted oblong affair with a face of noble simplicity: instead of the familiar dial hands ambling around a 12-figured circle, it bore only a series of digits that leaped forth, second by second, to record the precise instant. In keeping with the mysteries of the Hong Kong economy, the watch was being offered at a fraction of what it would cost in the United States. Americans were lined up three deep at the jewelry store counter eagerly waving their travelers' checks.

For a moment I too was tempted. Then I paused, vaguely uneasy. Why on earth should I care whether the official hour was exactly 2:23 p.m. and four seconds, or 2:23 1/2? What difference did it make in my life if it was 2:24 or even, as my modest Seiko insisted, only 2:22? I was no longer broadcasting reports from overseas that had to be timed into a network's schedule. And the prospects were excellent that if I bought the watch, I would one day leave it forgotten on some locker room bench. Why, then, the recurrent impulse to make it mine?

Behind my confusion, I have come to realize, was a jumble of conflicting associations related to time, dating back to a pocket Ingersoll that was one of the glories of my childhood. Aroused from slumber on the eve of my twelfth birthday, I was delighted to see dangling before me a shiny new timepiece, my passport to the adult world. That first watch was an instrument of authority (my little sister wouldn't get one for years) and discipline. No longer could I drift into classrooms late; when the attendance bell rang, the Ingersoll and I were at our desk.

With graduation to college came a handsome Elgin, and a change of focus. Varsity letters went to the fleet of foot; a good sprint performance could land you in the Cornell backfield. We all raced against time, and the Elgin charted our progress.

This fixation on outpointing time carried over to my next stop, a newspaper city room. Here it was translated into scoring a "beat" over the opposition -- my objective on many a prowl through the midnight streets of Manhattan. Time was part of the game (was that why we called it the "newspaper game"?), an element in an ongoing contest.

But until then I had been sheltered from the most unattractive of American native credos: "time is money." It was a businessman uncle who delivered this message as I was boarding an ocean liner for Southampton. I found the notion appalling, and the more so after travels in Europe. It was obvious that for Londoners, Parisians and Madrilenos time represented cultural opportunity, adventure, good fellowship, spiritual growth, political activity, civilized conversation -- in fact, almost anything but money. To compound my bafflement, many of the same "realists" who identified time with their pocketbooks also spoke glibly of "killing a few hours" at a movie. How could the object of fiscal reverence be the target of deliberate destruction?

It was not until youth began to recede, and my files were becoming crammed with projects in various stages of incompletion, that a clue emerged. Time was acquiring a new garb: that of the enemy, the inexorable jailer and relentless pursuer. "At my back I always hear," sang Andrew Marvell down the centuries, "Time's winged chariot hurrying near." I could understand the urge to annihilate time.

In search of solace, I turned to other poets. "Whose days are spent in whittling rhyme," Dorothy Parker reminded me, "What's time to her, or she to time?"

That struck a sympathetic chord. I too had known moments of total absorption , when the shaping of words or sounds had spun me free of the ticking hours. Intrigued by this theme, I undertook a biographical novel of the painter James McNeill Whistler, and found that time could impinge on the artist in unpredictable ways.

When whistler originally painted his two canvases called "Arrangement in Grey and Black" -- number 1 of his mother and number 2 of Thomas Carlyle -- the works were considered of roughly equal merit. With the passage of years (and the accrual of sentiment) the mother has immortalized him, while the tragically moving portrait of the philosopher has fallen into relative oblivion.

I was still absorbed in these ruminations when, overnight, the space age was upon us. Light-year distances threw into sharp relief the infinitesimal time-frame of man. If the arrangement of an atomic chain mimicked the pattern of the heavens, what new icon-shattering revelations might lie around the corner?Might we learn as much from gazing inward, returning to our spiritual roots, to our Maker and to each other, as from mapping the stars?

Now, in my contemplative autumn, surrounded by towering cliffs and a billowing sea, I look upon time as neither ally nor foe. I seek neither to hold time back nor to squeeze it anxiously. The mountain ranges visible from my balcony have stood serene through the crafting of symphonies and the decline of kings. They express an eternity alongside of which our mechanical gadgetry, our grumbling about the 55 mph speed limit and our obsession with Making It by the age of 40 seem trivial indeed.

It will come as a wrench to some of us that time is not money, the 7 p.m. advertising slot on television is not Elysium, and man is not a producing-consuming machine. But come it must, if we are to bring to bear the full human potential on an otherwise enigmatic future.

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