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Having second thoughts

June 24, 2011
By HOWARD RILEY , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Something that amazes me: After people master a skill, almost immediately they forget how hard it'd been.

For example, tying your shoelaces. Probably your initial reaction is to laugh because it's now so automatic it seems ridiculous anyone could even think it's a skill. Well, if so, think again. Then remember back to the time before you could do it. I can, and believe me, while others might've been amused at my attempts and frustration, I wasn't.

I remember it clearly, even though I was only 5, in first grade. Since kindergarten was a half-day, I reckon there was no reason to learn how to tie your shoes, since they had less time to come untied, and if they had, my darling Mrs. Eldrett would've retied them for me.

But first grade was Big Time, baby. It was a full day, and Miss Starr was not about to prolong our infancies by tying our shoes. Uh-uh, we were going to learn how, and that's all there was to it.

To me then, the secret of tying my shoelaces was at least as esoteric as the secrets of Freemasonry are to me now. There was a book shaped like a shoe that showed us how to do it, and the book had laces on it, so you could practice with them, which I did. There was only one problem: Tying shoelaces on a book you've got on your desk is not even close to tying them on your own shoes, which are on your feet.

I don't remember when I finally mastered that vital part of male sartorial self-help; I only know I was delighted to have done it.

Another skill we take for granted -?learning how to tell time with an analog watch (which, it should go without saying, was the only kind of watch we had in The Dark Ages of the '50s). I don't know how old I was when my mother started my time-telling drills; for some reason I think I was in second grade. I also don't know when most child psychologists say children can start to tell analog time easily, but I assume it's not when they're in second grade. At least it wasn't with this second-grader.

As with shoelaces, I don't actually remember when I learned how to tell time, but I'll never forget all my pathetic attempts in the process. My mother's method involved just holding out her watch at various times of the day and then asking me what time it was. I'd stare at the dial, hoping somehow the time would be magically revealed to me. Of course it wasn't, so I'd just shake my head and shrug my shoulders. Then she'd explain what happened when the big hand was on the 9 and the little hand was on whatever, and I'd nod dumbly, having understood none of it.

The whole scene kept repeating itself till I'd learned the names of a bunch of times - even though I couldn't recognize them on the dial. So my mother'd show me her watch and ask what time it was. I'd stare at it, maybe furrow my brow, maybe nibble my lip, as if in deep thought. Then I'd call out a time.

"Uh, it's 3:23," I'd say.

My mother'd shake her head.

"8:15?" I'd blurt.

Again my mother'd shake her head, this time not signaling to me I'd gotten it wrong so much as reaffirming to herself that her son was a hopeless Dope.

Ruled by the hands of time

I've no idea when I finally learned how to tell time - I think it was fourth grade. It didn't matter, though, because learning how to tell time, as opposed to tying my shoelaces, was a curse.

Tying my own shoelaces gave me a freedom from authority, not to mention lessening my chances of tumbling headfirst down a flight of stairs. Learning to tell time only made me its slave.

I hated school, pretty much from the first day I went there. But because I couldn't tell time, the days went by in an irregular fashion. If I was having fun, like in gym or at lunch, time flew. If I had to practice penmanship or do math, time seemed to stand still. All in all, it was a decent balance. But not so after I could tell time.

Then time was a clearly measurable quantity, and I was constantly reminded of it by the big Seth Thomas clocks on each classroom wall. Like too many other people, I became a morbid clock watcher. And as I stared at the clock, depressed, it ticked off the minutes of my incarceration and did so in the weirdest fashion. As opposed to the second hands on today's clocks, which move smoothly and continuously, the old school clock's second hand stayed in place for several minutes and then jumped ahead to the proper time.

It was as if time stopped for those few minutes and so did my life. I was a hapless captive - of the school system, of the teachers, of time itself. Then the hand would jump ahead with a loud metallic "click," and my life, such as it was, would resume. And on and on till the final bell of the day rang, setting me free of school, but of course not of time. Because once I could measure it, it was always there, telling me I was late for dinner, early for the dentist, on time for the Saturday matinee and on and on.

Back in those analog days, watches were far less accurate than they are today, so as much as I chafed against all the time constraints, because all clocks and watches gave different times, there was some degree of slack, some "extra" time built in, as it were.

Now that we live in a digital world and almost everyone uses a cell phone for a timepiece, we are all wired together, to the Atomic Clock, to be exact. Time now is down to the exact second.

Plus, since all time is digital, children can learn to tell time as soon as they know their numbers. For all practical purposes, they'll never live in a world of unmeasured or imprecise time. They'll never get cut even a second's slack.

In short, these two things illustrate how precisely regulated our lives can now be.

And if either of these things is an advantage, I fail to see it.



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