By Fr. G. Corwin Stoppel
The semi-annual ritual of changing clocks ahead and back for the start and end of daylight saving time brings to mind the sundial we will return to its place of honor when the weather warms up. Pat and I bought it at the end of a holiday in southern France and somehow got it home undamaged.
For the most part, sundials are now purely decorative. They are definitely low-tech — too much so for our modern lives — and remain distinctively inaccurate.
I lived in a small town where, according to legend, one of the merchants had a sundial on his lawn and set his wind-up pocket watch by it. He opened his shop, took out his watch and reset the time on a larger clock in the front showcase window.
Later that morning the fire chief would walk to the shop, take out his pocket watch and blow to know when he should blow the noon fire whistle. The shopowner would then readjust his pocket watch and use its time to reset the clock in the window.
It didn’t really matter because before we established standardized time zones, every community could decide on the time for their residents and visitors. That all changed because the railroads wanted to print and dole out train schedules. It got too chaotic when passengers could leave from, say, Holland to Lansing and arrive before they left.
The more the accuracy and technology of our time-pieces, the more rushed we seem to feel. I know it is needed, but think we lose part of our humanity when we allow our lives to be ruled by an artificial division of our day.
A friend described it during the holiday season a couple years ago. She’d been invited to a party, felt frazzled with everything that still needed to be done and blurted, “Let’s hurry and get this fun over with so we can move on to the next thing!”
Time may be arbitrarily divided into ever-smaller segments, but it is fluid. If we are having a good time, it speeds up and goes by too quickly; if we are bored or doing something we don’t like, it slows down to the speed of a glacier.
“The Clock of the Long Now” authors caught on to that idea when they suggested that in thinking of “now” as a specific time on a specific date, we think of our now as extending back a couple generations, then forward for a couple more after we have fallen off our perch.
That inter-generation motif comes to mind twice a year when we move our clocks forward and backward. In his later years my father would change the clocks early in the week, much to Mother’s frustration. She would move them back.
Over the next couple of days this quirky routine continued, meaning we were either really early or late on Sunday mornings. In a couple decades, I think I’ll continue that tradition just to confuse my fellow inmates at Happy Vale Old Folks Home.
Once the weather warms up, I’m going to have fun tinkering with our sundial. It is never accurate, of course because of the rotation and wobble of the earth and other factors. I’m searching for the right math equation so I can work it out on my slide rule and abacus.
Now I’m trying to figure out whether we “spring back in surprise” or “fall forward on our face” March 10. I’m pretty sure it is one or the other, and if I get it wrong I’m sure someone will be more than happy to tell me.