My Unsought Passage To a Land Without Time

When I encountered a wristwatch crisis, I dared to explore life in a land without time. This was unusual for me. In the great divide between those who try to be on time and those who do not, I reside in the first group. I've even been accused of being too time-conscious. But what do you expect from a reporter indentured to deadlines?

My time is fuzzily fast: I set my wristwatch and bedside alarm clock ahead, but not by a consistent amount. That way, I'm not tempted to mentally calculate the correct time. I know my timepieces are fast, but don't know by how much. To be safe, I can't afford to be clever.

When my basic, no-wind, two-handed Japanese model unexpectedly stopped (do watches ever give prior notice?), I drew encouragement from the fact that a backup sat in my bureau. It was a plastic digital acquired for the postage needed to mail it.

It's a sporty, do-everything model, more versatile than a Swiss Army knife, but not Swiss-engineered. It was made in China and offered as a reward to good credit-card customers.

At first, I welcomed the opportunity to change, to enter a new age of fashionable, multifunction digitals with all those buttons. Mine has four, with fine-print instructions on how to set day, time, year, alarm, and stopwatch functions.

The instructions were of limited help, however. I needed the assistance of our nine-year-old to set the time.

I asked him to set the time and suppress all beeper alarms, since they tend to go off at the worst moments. But at that point, my young consultant's expertise only extended to an emergency silencing procedure if and when the beeps occurred.

And they did.

WHEN the alarm went off at work one day, I panicked, wildly pushing buttons in a futile search for the right combination. The watch balked. Now it stares blankly at me on my desk next to a Post-It note epitaph: "The day time stood still."

Here, I concluded, was a golden opportunity to join the ranks of the watchless, to find out what life was like freed from time. With only weeks to go before 1998, I took it as a challenge to finish the year unaided by watchmakers.

Of course, I couldn't totally divorce myself from knowing the time. I needed to be at work and to meetings on time. But in today's world, I discovered, wristwatches are optional. To a point.

Before sunrise, three digital clocks glow like night lights in our family room/kitchen: one from the oven, another from the microwave, and a third from the VCR.

Jump in the car, turn the ignition, and the dashboard digitally displays the time again. Dependably, too - not like the old days, when clocks were the first thing to break in a car.

At work, the theme repeats itself: My telephone and computer monitor unobtrusively provide the time.

Perhaps wristwatches have outlived their usefulness, I thought. Perhaps I was jumping to conclusions.

Halfway to an engagement on foot, I remembered I wasn't wearing a watch. To my surprise, I discovered that public clocks were harder to find than Boston parking spaces. I was left to peer in store windows or ask passersby.

Then, while teaching Sunday school, I wanted to summarize the class discussion before the bell rang. But I was clueless about the time remaining.

I limped through to 1998.

Finally, a sister-in-law took pity. She sent me a watch from a fast-food restaurant's Olympic promotion. It's functional, not fancy, and cheap. It ticks and probably cost all of $2. But at that price, it's a bargain even if it stops when the Olympic flame goes out in Nagano, Japan.

And if it does, maybe I'll set myself a new challenge: no wristwatch until the year 2000.

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