Enclosed please find a pocket watch, a gift from me to you. Gift is perhaps the wrong word; maybe think of it as a trust.
Your father entrusted this gift to me twenty-five years ago (give or take a year)—or, as you might appreciate:
525,600 minutes x 25 = 13,140,000 minutes
(give or take a few hundred thousand minutes)
Your dad used to play with his father’s pocket watches at the family farm. He liked the weight of them, the texture of them—not to mention the surety of them. Wind up a pocket watch, stick it in your pocket, attach the chain to your belt loop or button hole, and you are never out of time’s reach. Me, I like the anachronism of the thing—this artifact of a bygone era when people often found themselves otherwise out of time’s reach. I wonder why you’ll like it, although I don’t doubt that you will. It’s in your nature; you and I descend from the same DNA, and more than that, you and I belong to the same human family—a family fascinated by time.
Time prompts surround us everywhere we go—from our computers to our phones to our televisions to our banks (with the notable exception of coffee shops and other “third places,” which are by unspoken social contract “time-free zones”). I fancied myself liberated when I first unshackled my wrist from its watch, but lately I suspect I just outsourced my time-obsession to other technologies. Thanks to innovations in technology, time is now wholly integrated: my time these days is kept by my phone, which autocorrects itself to reflect movement across time zones and updates events in my calendar accordingly. That’s actually annoying; the appointments I set for, say, 3:00 while sitting at my desk in the Midwest change to 4:00 once I arrive on the East Coast. I am precisely one hour late for every meeting. As Marshall McLuhan might have put it, having thus shaped my tools, my tools started shaping me.
We might be forgiven for thinking we’re no longer time-obsessed. Time in a post-timepiece era is not fluid; it’s punctuated. I schedule activities in five-minute increments in the date book in my phone; I remember my commitment to these activities by my phone’s alarm, set for five minutes, fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, one hour, two hours, one day or two days before the event itself. I move through life from ping to ping, intellectually divorced from the reality that time is marching inexorably on, that our past is ticking away from us as relentlessly as our future is ticking toward us. History is linear and progressive; we are chained to its back, waiting to see where it takes us.
Not all cultures have bent the knee toward the date book, of course. Devout Muslims mark time by collective, public prayer: they stop to pray five times daily, with mosques sounding the times of prayer as acknowledgment that there is a God standing over time, observing the acts of his creation over the course of it. Monks in the Christian tradition do the same thing. The Mayans famously traced time cyclically with a forward progression, the supposed termination date now just months away. This notion of time is also observed in the Christian scriptures, with a beginning and an end but also tied by feasts and festivals to the natural rhythms of the earth. This biblical tradition informed the understanding of time for our farmer grandfather, his pocket watch collection notwithstanding.
There’s something reassuring about the notion of being tethered to time. In an age in which time is marked by ephemera, punctuated by pings and status updates, the reminder that we are moving all together through it toward a final moment feels, the older I get, somehow less oppressive and more reassuring. Not only that, but the dependency of a pocket watch—telling us time only as we remember to wind it and set it—is a good reminder that we are not passive recipients of time but active agents in it. Time, like this pocket watch, is not only a gift but a trust.
Twenty-five years or so from now, you may have a satellite dish sticking out of your head, telling you moment to moment with pinpoint accuracy where and when you are. Maybe not. In any case, I hope you’ll remember this pocket watch and pass it along to some child of a more recent generation. I hope it will remind them, as it reminds me and may remind you, that there are no anachronisms, no bygone eras. Time is the stage on which one grand story is playing out, and we are all actors in it.