It is increasingly obvious that many of our fellow citizens are slipping deep into the past. A large number are opting for living arrangements based on the pre-matrimony model. Many students, with the help of their teachers, have achieved pre-literate intellectual standing. There is pre-anesthesia childbirth and various forms of primitive animal and earth worship. To top things off, we are beset by a stone-age culture that unfortunately is on the hunt for the most up-to-date weapons in order to institute the ancient vision of Armageddon.
As one who seldom stiffs a trend, I must admit a similar slide. In my case, the target is timekeeping. It has been about seven years since I have worn a watch. There is no clock in the office, save for one in the computer, which is avoided most of the time. A few clocks are scattered around the house, but they might as well be houseplants for all the attention they get. There is no sundial in the garden. There is only daytime and nighttime, plus the occasional cocktail hour and senior moment.
Why live this way? The answer is itself ancient: The desire for freedom — freedom from time itself, which as we know is the stuff of which life is made. One cannot find full freedom while chained to a clock. That is the operating assumption.
This assumption is, of course, contrary to the common belief that keeping time is a mark of high civilization. Daniel Boorstin, the historian, speaks for the mob: “While man allowed his time to be parsed by the changing cycles of daylight he remained a slave of the sun. To become the master of his time, to assimilate night into day, to slice his life into neat, usable portions, he had to find a way to mark off precise small portions — not only equal hours, but even minutes and seconds and parts of seconds.”
The more reasonable interpretation of this development is that instead of being enslaved merely by the sun, man became enslaved by the clock — a device which eventually migrated to his wrist. He has marched to its steady, monotonous beat ever since. As Boorstin himself points out, the clock was invented for the very purpose of disturbing the peace. “The very word clock bears the mark of its monastic origins,” he writes. “The Middle English Clok came from the Middle Dutch word for bell and is a cognate of the German Glocke, which means bell. Strictly speaking, in the beginning a timepiece was not considered to be a clock unless it rang a bell.” In other words, the first clocks were alarm clocks — which were created to rouse monks from their slumbers.
As it happens, my unfortunate but very dear wife remains enslaved by such a clock, which sounds a shrill alarm each morning at 5. What a terrible way to start the day. One is reminded of a Roman galleymaster bringing a weary oarsman to consciousness with a pre-dawn thump on the head. From there it is all down hill: total enslavement to the inescapable ticking and tocking. Her ordeal persists even in my presence, at least when it becomes appropriate to ask: “What time will the chow be ready, dear?” Old habits do die hard.
Those of us seeking the purer way don’t have it so easy, it should be pointed out. It takes huge amounts of vigilance to avoid the grasp of the second, minute, and hour hands. It can hardly be otherwise.
We often hear that we live in a sex-soaked culture. True enough. Indeed, I have seen Madonna’s tush far more often than I’ve seen my own. Yet we are confronted by time far more often than we are by sex. Clocks are everywhere — in cars, town halls, along roadsides, on every office and schoolhouse wall, on stoves and ovens, coffee makers, in televisions, on pens and paperweights, to name only a few places. In some neighborhoods churches still clang out the hour with bells (or variations thereof).
Then there are watches. Finding someone who doesn’t wear a watch is rare indeed, unless that person happens to be lying in a coffin, and even then it’s not a sure bet. One wouldn’t want to show up late at the Rope Line. The only other guy I know who doesn’t wear a watch is a bass player of sketchy means — and he has a clock in his cell phone. In short, those of us who choose not to wear watches are very much a minority, and a despised minority at that. When we are forced to ask someone for the time (as happens in emergency situations), the resulting glare reminds us that we live far outside the mainstream. This impression is deepened if we add: “Is that A.M. or P.M.?”
Total purity is impossible. Time exists and intrudes, no matter how much we may try to ignore it. We have deadlines to meet, appointments to keep, recipes to follow to the minute. If a check from an editor does not arrive punctually the hounds of hell must be loosed.
Yet returning to a place before time, or at least time-keeping, is a worthy effort. If nothing else, when the lurking Reaper finally asks “Do you know what time it is?” one can honestly answer:
“I haven’t got a friggin’ clue.”
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