My Time is Stored all over the World.
I have time stored away all over the world. This comes as a direct result of two facts about myself: A) I hate to wear watches, and B) I have had a lifelong problem with the seemingly simple skill of telling time.
I cannot tell time (very well)
Despite the fact I actually work in a fairly technical industry, and have a certain aptitude for math, watches and timepieces in general have always been a bit beyond my grasp. I remember being out of school for several weeks when all the students were taught how to tell time. I never was able to catch up after that. It seems to run in my family -- my Uncle and Grandfather both have a difficult time with time. I don't (fully) blame my problem on being out of school when it was taught, but I never felt like time was meant for me, like it was something that everyone else in the world knew about, but I could only find out about it secondhand.
In second grade, I remember one of my first real problems coming up when I was given an assignment with a huge yellow cardboard clock with multiple colored numbers. In no time at all I ran into my first problem - the workbook asked me to place the "big hand" on the 12.
"Which one is the big hand?"
My theory is that my geometric skills had come far enough to really screw things up. "Big" could mean "tall" or "fat". Since one of the red plastic hands was short, but big-fat, and the other was skinny, but big-tall, I couldn't make sense of it. Thinking back, I bet that both hands had an equal amount of area within different shapes.
"This one, Alan -- the big one." She pointed it out with an elementary school teacher's patience. I nodded and said "Thanks". As soon as I had sat down again, I forgot which one she pointed out.
Faking it was okay for a bit, but trouble came up when I was asked to write down a time. The different marks around the clock change and never stay the same. Depending on which hand was pointing at it, one of the marks was either "three" or "fifteen". The brownish page of the workbook stared up at me: "Look at the face of the clock on page 12 and write down the time". Urgh.
I remember thinking very hard every time I had to tell the time -- embarrassed to always have this internal dialogue: "Now, the big is the tall, no it's the fat, no ...big hand-fat hand, small hand-skinny hand...or maybe the other way around...". I utterly failed time-telling, but got an average grade for effort.
Everything in adult life seemed to revolve around time, so I was always trying to hone my skills, maybe trying too hard -- overthinking and causing more problems. But as soon as I had started to get better at "big hand-little hand" (I still don't always get that right), new issues came up.
I was home once, showing off for my Dad when I asked him to tell me what time it was and I would draw a clock to show him. He said "It's a quarter after three." So I drew a clock face with a short fat hand pointing straight to the right, and a long thin hand pointing nearly straight down, a little right of due south.
He looked at it and told me it was wrong. I argued that it said "three twenty-five", unless I got the hands backwards, then it would be "five fifteen". He said the hands were fine, but a quarter past meant fifteen minutes after the hour, not twenty-five.
I remember being confused for a long long time over this one. I knew for a fact that a quarter was twenty-five cents. Why was this quarter only fifteen? A nickel is five, always was before. A dime is ten, and so a quarter should be twenty-five, right?. I wondered if it was okay to say "a dime past five" for "five ten". I think I was in junior high before I fully realized that a quarter of an hour was equal to a fourth of sixty, or fifteen. It never seemed to click in my head. All this time I was a straight "A" student in History, English, and even Math, but could never master that damned clock.
Even more problems came up later, like saying the time properly. I never could get in tune with the natural flow of saying what time it was. It made no sense to me why "ten after" or "ten till" were acceptable phrases, but "fifty after", or "fifty till" were ridiculous. They all told the time, why did people laugh when I said "forty-five minutes until five" or "fifty minutes after seven"?
Beyond unacceptable phrasing came utter nonsense, such as "ten of". "Ten of", What the Hell? "Ten of" what? Ten of spades, ten of those roses? Does that mean "ten minutes of that hour" as if those minutes belonged to that hour, like "seven ten"? Or does it mean ten minutes are to come until we reach the hour, as in "six fifty"? If so, then why? Nobody has ever been able to make sense out of that one for me.
Practical everyday time-telling had me in a real bind. Often, I didn't know what time it was when I asked someone, because they only half answered.
"Excuse me sir, do you know what time it is?"
"Hm? Yes...it's umm, half past."
Half past WHAT? If I knew what hour it was I wouldn't have asked you for the time!!! When it's late outside, eight, nine, even ten o'clock all look similar. When you're inside, you don't even have the sky to judge by. Why in the world do people give just the minutes when they are asked for the time?
My most feared and hated response when I ask the time is when the passerby just shows me their watch. Now, I have a Hell of a time deciphering the damn watch even when it's right-side up. So here's this outstretched wrist, some people twist it, so it faces you correctly, others don't. By the time I've figured out which way it's facing, they assume I've had more than enough time to read it, and let their sleeve down and move on, leaving me just as lost as I was before. I'll play along, pretending I got it and say "Thanks", and turn and look for some other public source for the time of day.
I hate wearing watches
I know, you're probably saying "Go out and buy a watch dumbass." Well, I've owned watches before, most of them came as gifts, and they make even more trouble for me. The worst watch I ever had was a Mickey Mouse water resistant wristwatch. There were no numbers!!! How do I tell time without numbers? There were only four marks all the way around, so I had to guess at the middle eight that were left off. To make matters worse, both of Mickey's hands looked the same! There was no way to tell which was bigger or smaller. They were both huge! Mickey's fat fingertip covered about three full minutes.
Worse yet -- the watches with just one number, or no markings at all. I could be only be confident when it was high noon, or midnight maybe (if I was sure that the watch was right-side up). But easier still meant difficult for me compared to anyone else.
Whenever someone asked me for the time, I felt like my IQ dropped about a hundred points.
"Excuse me, what time do you have?"
"Umm, just a sec..." I'd say, with an uncomfortable pause, squinting of eyes, counting with finger on the watch face. "Umm it's four, uh four..." Then I would show them the watch, feeling foolish.
"Five ten, thanks son." They would say sympathetically, then move on. I hated wearing a watch for fear that someone would ask me to read the damn thing.
Now you might also ask "Have you ever heard of digital?" Why yes, I have indeed heard of digital watches, and yes, I have even owned a few. Once, early in High School, one of my friends (who knew about my time-telling challenges) gave me a digital watch as a gift. On this particular watch, the digital numbers were two and a half inches tall. It was bigger than many travel alarm clocks are today, with a wide black wristband. I wore the huge thing for a few days, but soon realized that most of my friends thought it was just a joke. Nobody seemed to notice that I actually loved it, because it was so damn easy to read. After hearing "Are you still wearing that thing?" for the third time, I put it away in a "never to be seen again" junk drawer.
I get into less trouble with digital, but I still don't like the general concept of a wristwatch. The "initially uncomfortable" phase never wore off for me - the watch was always there - detectable and annoying (or worse yet, pinching or getting caught on something.
The final straw came just after High School. I was trying once again to get accustomed to wearing a watch, when I got a job working in an Asphalt Testing Laboratory. Yes, asphalt and paving materials, lots of machinery, dangerous hot material, and chemicals everywhere. Jewelry and watches weren't allowed. By the end of my time working there, I found that I loved having a bare wrist, no permanent attachment, no constant badgering timekeeper. I resolved to give up wearing watches, not an earth-shattering moment, I agree. But I thought I had doomed myself to asking strangers for the time and feeling stupid.
One way I overcame this was to start watching for public clocks wherever I could find them, around corners, behind desks, through bank windows. One of the best ways that I still use is to look at a receipt for something I just bought. The time and date is usually printed somewhere on it, and I can guess about how long ago I bought something. I have bumped into more than my share of mall shoppers while squinting at a recent receipt.
Thinking up alternatives, I thought of Pocket watches a few times -- they had always seemed like a good idea, but I never have owned a vest, and the watches were all way too expensive, and way too fancy. More than half of them had jeweled faces and some sort of relief carving of a hunter aiming a shotgun at the sky with his duck-hunting dog next to him. Yeah, right, I'm going to carry something like that around with me.
One day I found a great surprise in a Woolworth's store. Cheap, plain pocket watches! Westclox Scotty, and Westclox Bullseye. The difference between the two being that the Scotty has a black background and glow-in-the-dark numbers and hands. Both watches were about ten dollars, (The Scotty cost about a dollar more, as if glowing face technology is just that much more expensive.)
This was great, I thought, so I bought one and have been a faithful customer ever since. At first I just put it in my pants pocket, with all of my change, lint, and old receipts. That wasn't so great, but I soon hit on the great idea of putting it on my keychain. A neat side benefit -- I could always find my keys, just by listening for the ticking (dependant on a quiet house).
After more than twelve years of using these watches, I know why they sell for so cheap. In the 1930's and 40's they were called "dollar-watches". Cheap little watches designed to work for a few weeks, no more. Disposable timepieces. These newer versions aren't much better. I've had them last as long as nine months, but I've also had them break in the first few minutes out of the box.
I've figured on about three months or so with every watch, averaged. When you first get them, you have to check them for a couple of days because they are always either slow or fast, as much as an hour in a day. They have a simple little speed adjuster inside the back, but if you need any other repairs, you may as well buy a new watch.
Leaving my time behind, around the world
Now, back to the opening of this essay: I have time stored away all over the world. One interesting result of these watches wearing out or breaking so often is that I ended up with broken watches all around the world. I spent much of the 90s and 00s traveling the world for work and pleasure, so a watch might break down anytime, anywhere.
When my third watch went kaput on Christmas Eve Day, 1991, I was in a contemplative state, and in a wonderful place. I remembered a scene from a great old movie "Harold and Maude" where Maude takes a treasured gift that Harold has given her and immediately hurls it out into the ocean.
"What did you do that for?" Harold shouts.
"Now I'll never be able to lose it, I'll always know where it is." She replied.
I happened to be in Todos Santos, Mexico that day. A small town on the west coast of the Baja Peninsula. I knew that there would be little chance of my ever returning there again. All that I have to this day are the pictures and memories of a wonderful vacation.
But there is more, actually. I have left some of my time there. I have left a piece of myself in the surf off of Todos Santos. I know that to this day, those same waves that thunder in my memory truly shake the sand my watch is buried in.
That day I started a small tradition that I have carried out ever since, little milestones that act as fantastic guideposts to my recent past. I usually do it in a small ritualized fashion, but always enjoy it.
When a watch of mine dies, I wind it up one last time, if it's still possible, or shake it about until I can hear ticking, then I bury it or toss it, still ticking. This way, even though I know it probably would wind down in a few hours or less, there is always a chance, a remote possibility, a ridiculous fantasy that it would go on ticking, for years and years, counting my time and allowing me to try to hold on to a fleeting moment. The wonderful part about it is that I'll never know. The last time I held those watches, they were ticking, ticking off my time, and I'll never have evidence that they have stopped.
I try to bury the watch wherever I happen to be when it decides to break. My first Scotty lies ticking away under an undulating Mexican beach, where it ticked away my hours of joy watching the sky fade in the most colorful sunset I have ever seen, while the amazing surf pounded the beach I sat on, shaking the earth itself. I shared that evening with nobody, save the passing pelicans.
I have a watch buried in the windswept and wet town of Whittier Alaska, ticking away my hours spent as a tour bus driver in the pouring rain, as I waited for tourists to disembark from cruise ships.
A watch of mine lies on the bottom of the ocean in the Caribbean, just a mile or so offshore of St. Thomas, ticking away the last few hours of 1992 as I stood on the rear deck of a cruise ship and watched dark and distant Puerto Rico pass by in the night.
I have another watch buried alongside some souls that were buried in the 16th century. It lies ticking in a churchyard cemetery in the west side of London, counting away the days I spent poking around every dark and gray corner I could find in that fascinating city. Interestingly enough, I spotted this same churchyard in a film shot a few years later: "Four Wedding and a Funeral".
Another lies in the beach sand of Virginia, ticking beneath cold waves and seashells. It counts my time spent working on the road, driving and flying through North American cities, states and provinces for two years with little time to stay.
One of the more recent burials was in a vacant field near the original drugstore.com building. I had just joined drugstore.com as a web developer - it was 1999, it was ecommerce, they were pre-IPO, they were supported by Kleiner Perkins, I got options, it was exciting.
Many others lie about, all told, I have about 18 watches buried worldwide. Each one has a story attached to it (too long to recount them all here now - maybe as an add-on sometime later) and kept my time for a brief while. They've acted as markers for my travels - at first, through the world, and lately through my career. In general order they are:
Todos Santos, Baja Peninsula, Mexico -- buried in the sands at slack tide.
Whittier, Alaska -- buried in the vast railyard that occupies most of the town.
Atlantic Ocean -- Caribbean, on the seafloor, one hour west of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
London, England -- in a churchyard cemetery
Saskatchewan, Canada -- buried in the cold ground off the Yellowhead Highway
Tallahassee Florida -- buried in the grassy grounds of the State Capitol Building
Valdez, Alaska -- at the bottom the Small Boat Harbor off of Valdez Arm
The Entrance to Denali State Park, Alaska -- in a hollowed out Black Spruce tree.
Indianapolis, Indiana -- a watch lies demolished near the parking lot of a nondescript shopping mall.
Seattle, Washington -- underwater in (surprisingly deep) Lake Washington
Kauai, Hawaii -- In the corals in the Pacific, off the northern Na Pali coast - a honeymoon excursion
Las Vegas, Nevada -- behind a construction panel on piling of an abandoned building downtown.
Halleck Island, Alaska -- in the waters just offshore. Thrown from a ferry passing nearby.
Redmond, Washington -- Microsoft Campus, building 25. During my time at msnbc.com
Heidelberg, Germany -- in the River Neckar, during a revisit to the city I was born in
Redmond, Washington -- In a vacant lot near the original drugstore.com building
Bellevue, Washington -- In the parking garage under current drugstore.com HQ
Seattle, Washington -- Amazon.com's headquarters building, looking down on Seattle from Beacon Hill.
More to come for sure.
-Alan Taylor, July 21st, 2003