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February 25, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 42



Margot Patterson Standing in streams of time

By Margot Patterson, NCR opinion editor

One of the books I will not be reading this spring is Michael Downing's Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time. I regret that, for the title appealed to me and I thought of buying the book when it comes out in April. But I've too much going during the next few months; I don't have the time to read it.

Downing's book is said to be a humorous look at daylight saving time, an invention that has sometimes seemed to me of questionable value. I'm not opposed to daylight saving time, mind you; what I dislike is the fact that just when you've gotten used to it, just when you really need it as the days grow shorter, you're deprived of it. I think sticking to one time -- whether standard or daylight saving time -- makes sense. Going back and forth seems fickle and manipulative.

Like many people, I am concerned with time. I know the time it takes to get from home to work (11 minutes if I hit the stoplights right) and though I have never actually clocked the time difference between the three routes to work I can take, not a week goes by that I don't think about doing this. In planning when I leave to get somewhere, I calculate the time my journey will take down to the minute, anxious not to waste a millisecond if I can help it. Usually, these intricate calculations result in my being perennially late.

Benjamin Franklin is the man credited with inventing daylight saving time. He was America's envoy in Paris, elderly and laid up with gout when his friend, Antoine Alexis-Francois Cadet de Vaux, the editor of the Journal de Paris, urged him to put his time to good use. In response, Franklin wrote a humorous letter poking fun at his frugality and talking about how a new oil light had led him to an important appreciation of the economy of thrift and light. The letter was published in the Journal de Paris in 1784 under the English title of "An Economical Project."

In it, Franklin proposed that Parisians, who he complained rose at noon, should go to bed earlier to save on candles. Cannons and church bells should rouse the sluggards out of bed at daylight. The pain of establishing the new scheme would be short-lived, only two or three days. "Oblige a man to rise at four in the morning, and it is probable he will go willingly to bed at eight in the evening," Franklin wrote.

In 1973 during the oil embargo Congress imposed daylight saving time as a way to cut energy consumption, and except for Arizona, Hawaii and Indiana, daylight saving time has been in force in the United States ever since. The rationale for daylight saving is efficiency and economy. I don't doubt it does what it's supposed to do -- save money -- though I think writer Robertson Davies may have been on to something when he wrote in The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks: "At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy and wise in spite of themselves."

Daylight saving is the most recent of many efforts to manage time. Spurred by the railroads, the United States imposed standard time in November, 1883. Up until then, local time ruled. Not everyone immediately fell in line with standard time. Detroit was said to have kept local time until 1900 when its city council decreed that the clocks should be put back 38 minutes to Central Standard Time. Half the city obliged; the other half refused.

The Industrial Revolution in particular changed how people experienced and treated time. An industrial system imposed a discipline that required a new attitude towards time. Before then, people were much less time-bound than we are today. Were they freer because of it? Probably in certain ways. Everything has a price, including progress.

The effort to partition time began long before then, of course. The Egyptians devised sun clocks 3,000 years B.C. Oil clocks, water clocks and fire clocks followed. The first mechanical clock was invented about 1200 A.D, according to one source I read. A Web site on time by the Canadian Broadcast Company said the first public clock was erected in Milan in 1335. The wrist watch dates from World War I.

All of these efforts to measure time are meant to help us use our time efficiently, and yet I suspect that the more we try to save time, the less we have of it. Certainly my efforts to measure out my life in carefully calibrated increments don't seem to add much leisure to my life.

My niece, who spent several months in Mali on a college exchange program, told me people in Mali have an amazing ability not to worry about time. After a while she said she gave up wearing her watch. Nothing ever started on time. In any case, if she was late, it didn't matter. It's not that Malians never watch the time. They do, but in a different way. I learned from my niece that Malians don't say "hello." They say, "good morning," "good midday," "good afternoon" and "good evening." The time of "good midday" changes as the days grow longer. In February, when my niece arrived, it was about 11. When she left in May, it was about 9:30. "I could never really figure it out," she said. "Sometimes I'd say 'good morning,' and they'd correct me and say, 'no, good midday.'"

Malians don't hurry. They don't have much, but they do have time. In the West, we have everything but time.

I don't know whether I'll ever be in a place where time doesn't much matter. I suspect I'd find it maddening. But I'd like to experience it sometime to see if and how it affects me once I settle into it.

"Time is but the stream I go fishing in," Thoreau said.

That's not our culture's predisposition, though, and I'm probably not the only one who's standing in the stream trying to stop the water. Going with the flow is probably less frustrating and more fun. If I could give up my futile efforts to manage time, I might be able to enjoy it.

Margot Patterson is NCR opinion editor. She can be reached at mpatterson@natcath.org

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