Time flies, or does it even exist?

I’m old enough that I sometimes look back on days gone by and wistfully express my longing for times past.
Well, I guess you don’t have to be too terribly old to do that. I’ve heard my eight- and 10-year-olds deliver a significant pause and a hint of a sigh after recalling how things were back in the day, back when “Mawci” and “Dawci” would take the preschoolers at Mary Johnson out to play in the kiddie pool on hot summer days.
So human beings are pretty young when they begin to experience the passage of time. The long ride to grandma’s house, the hours it takes to clean your room, fifth grade will never end. But then, somehow, almost without us even noticing it, we find ourselves putting the vacuum cleaner away and sitting down with a good book, rising from bed in a sun-filled room on the first day of summer vacation, standing next to the car on a chilly afternoon being fully engulfed in a hug by someone who loves us dearly. At these moments I ask myself, how did I get to this moment in time?
Maybe you can tell I’ve long pondered the nature of time. My basic question is, is it real? I mean, who doesn’t like a good time travel movie? “Back to the Future” was a favorite when I was in college. One of the first grown-up books I read was Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward,” about a Victorian era gentleman who was in some sort of suspended animation for a hundred years and awakes to Boston in the year 2000 (I first read it in the ’70s; I should read it again to see how it compared to the real Boston in 2000, it’s probably a hoot). And, of course, there was the classic Saturday morning kids show, “Land of the Lost,” where explorers (who unaccountably had children along on the expedition) paddled down a river in a cave and came out in the time of the dinosaurs.
The point is, these works of fiction were all about people living at one moment in time and then living at a discontinuous moment in time. That’s not supposed to happen, time is supposed to be one day and then the next day, one minute and then the next minute, one instant followed by the next instant. You could no more shuffle around the moments of your life than you could shuffle around the breaths that you take — first there is one and then the next. To use a geometric metaphor, time is a ray: There is a starting point but once you start down the path there is no turning back.
But these stories got me wondering if time wasn’t so simple.
Then I heard about Einstein and relativity. What I don’t understand about Einsteinian physics could fill a book too heavy for my kids to carry in their backpacks. But the thing I get is that it is possible for me, standing on this Earth rotating on its axis and revolving around the sun, to experience an hour differently than Buck Rogers rocketing past a black hole at nearly the speed of light; my hair gets grayer and grayer while he doesn’t even have time to finish his lunch. Two guys, both superheroes (in the broadest sense), watching each other and my clock is somehow going faster than his — what’s up with that?
And speaking of clocks, show of hands please for any of you who regularly use an analog clock with hands on it. The last two times I broke my wristwatch I tried to buy a replacement watch with hands. I sensed that I was trapped in a mindset that carved up time into such tiny and disconnected atoms that I was missing out on the mysterious and beautiful continuity of time. And yet, I couldn’t go back. When it came right down to it I purchased a digital job that could tell me to the hundredth of a second how long I had been boiling that egg.
My Uncle Dick and Aunt Dorothy gave me my first wristwatch when I was a teenager. It had hands. But when I was a freshman in college and doing 200-meter repeats in a track workout I discovered that a sweep second hand didn’t work so well and I bought into the digital culture, and bought my first digital timepiece.
I understand that it is an artifact of culture, this time thing. Seven hundred years ago clocks in Europe didn’t have minute hands on them — why bother, who cares about a few minutes? Fast forward 650 years and you’ll find my dad at a small college in the Midwest learning about time-motion studies, where he looks at how long it takes a factory worker to perform a task then re-engineers the swing of an arm to squeeze out a few seconds and produce a few more pennies of profit. After college he put his skills to work in a meat packing plant.
But times are a changing, so they say. Look at all these people who run around with their digital phones with their clocks all synchronized worldwide to the nth nanosecond; and the owners of these digital devices complain that they don’t have any time. How long can this last? Maybe the long-promised “benefits” of computer technology — time shifting one’s job, for instance — will really come to pass. There’s a physicist named Adam Frank who says that big cultural shifts in the perception of time accompany big shifts in human organization (think agrarian societies where the cock crowing is a legitimate measure of time vs. the workers in the industrial revolution whose lives were ruled by the whistle commanding them to get to their machines).
We’re trying to do our part in my household to twist ourselves away from the tyranny of digital timekeeping. We got the girls alarm clocks for Christmas. They are small and round. And they each have two hands — one for hours and one for minutes. No second hand, though; they can let the seconds pass by in dreamy reverie. They’re only kids, after all.

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