Valley Voices

Beth Linder Carr: The gong show – why analog time is better than digital

Denny Hamlin poses next to the winner’s trophy after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va., last March.
Denny Hamlin poses next to the winner’s trophy after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va., last March. Associated Press file

The onset of daylight saving time has me thinking about time and its role in my life. In the days after losing an hour, I feel groggy and slightly disoriented, bitter at the need to once again arise in the dark.

After a month or so, the bitterness recedes, though, and I begin to appreciate the extra light at the end of the day, the opportunity to spend more time outside.

This same ambivalence applies to my experience of the way we humans keep track of time. I grew up with analog clocks, my father a collector of beautiful old pendulum-run ones in ornately carved and painted cases, acquired during our years in Germany.

They would gong or chime on the quarter and half hour, and on the hour, when they were well-synchronized, we would be treated to a concert of varying tones at differing cadences. This is a vivid aural memory from my childhood, and now, decades later, I still enjoy the regular echoing music that fills my parents’ home.

This gonging never woke us, having become a part of the rhythm of our days and nights, resonating deep within the rhythm of our bodies. The clocks intoned the time 24 hours a day, and we lived and breathed with them.

I think of my father in the fall, resetting all of these clocks, palming the pendulums, and waiting an hour to set them back in motion, no need to touch the fragile hands. Time stops, and he regains the lost hour. The spring, however, brings with it the necessity to coax antique hands carefully forward one full rotation, the physical representation of the loss of that hour.

Nowadays most time tellers lack such round faces and moving hands, however. Digital is king, and my phone, microwave, computer and car display brightly-lit numbers, separated by a colon, to show the precise time of day.

My antipathy toward this more modern system stems not just from the differing formats and shapes: bright numbers on a dark background – often barely visible in direct sunlight – vs. a usually round, usually light space sectioned out by contrasting symbols, perfectly easy to read in any light except for absolute darkness.

It’s what these contrasting characteristics represent as I interact with them that gives me pause. The intervals on an analog clock face are real spaces, representing real time, time to remain calm as I work to complete a task or head to an appointment.

The harsh numbers of the task master-like digital clock progress at a relentless, anxiety-inducing pace, taunting me, no space to think, or even to breathe.

My antipathy deepens when the digital timer on my washing machine lies to me outright. I sometimes plan my departure from the house based on the number of minutes the machine claims are remaining in the cycle. I slowly started to suspect that this “timer” was wildly inaccurate.

(For instance, feeding the horses takes longer than a minute, yet on a day last month the machine read 19 minutes when I went out, and 18 when I came back in.) Since precision is, I believe, the only redeeming quality of digitalization, I decided to administer a test one Saturday morning.

My (digital!) timer app in hand, I stood poised in front of the thing as the readout turned to 2:00. On this occasion, at least, the final two minutes proved to be almost five. The old dishwasher used to lie to me too, but the new one is mute on the subject of time.

Herein lies the root of my ambivalence, and an irony as well: The accuracy of my timer app helped me expose the inaccuracy of its digital cousin. And my love of counting things led my husband to give me a Fitbit, a black band with a digital readout that I wear nestled up against the analog Timex on my right wrist.

In cold weather, when my arm is covered in multiple layers, it’s a struggle to access the information on both. My students wonder why I bother to wear these two seemingly redundant time pieces. Despite the big round analog clocks in our classrooms, they have essentially grown up with digital time, I know.

When I was still teaching German, I realized just how much most young people rely on that number display. To teach them how to “tell time” in German, I first had to teach them how an analog clock face works.

In the old days, before all of my students had a smartphone, an important item on the list of things to bring on a field trip was a wristwatch. And even with an iPhone in my pocket and a Fitbit crowding it out, I still rely on the calming and cushioning spaces on the face of my analog watch to guide me through the time in my life.

Beth Linder Carr of Tollhouse teaches English and drama at Sierra High School. Write to her at blinder@sierrausd.org.

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