January 2016

Better than a sundial

By David Feela

If you meet a someone who claims to be a horologist, really, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Horology has nothing to do with hanging out on street corners in mesh stockings, asking strangers if they’ve got the time. Horology is the study and measurement of time. There’s nothing kinky about it.

I’ve been fascinated by watches and clocks since I first noticed my grandfather’s gold pocket watch winking at me from the drawer of my father’s nightstand. The ticking sound it produced when I secretly wound it up and held it like a seashell against my ear helped me understand at a very early age that time passes, incrementally and continuously.

My first watch arrived as a castoff, my father’s old Elgin. I asked him one-too-many times to borrow it as I headed out the door on my newspaper route. Perhaps he admired my desire for punctuality, but I suspect he just got tired of reminding me to give it back.

When I first peeked at the inner workings of an old mechanical watch, I knew I had been lucky enough to glimpse a multi-jeweled universe. It wasn’t like a tedious quartz movement which combined a replaceable battery with the abstraction of a stem that wound nothing up. I mean, really, I’m not trying to sound like a crank, but quartz watches nearly ruined it for me, a budding romantic watch aficionado. Quartz watches, first marketed in the 1960s, were cheap because they were mass-produced like postage stamps. All the aesthetic sense of time, of design, or of craftsmanship had been swept like useless seconds out the door.

The evolution of the watch may seem to have stagnated until the debut of the smartwatch, manufacturers like Samsung and Apple claiming that timekeeping is on the verge of a revolution. While a smartwatch can aspire to a dizzying array of functions, it’s not mechanical art.

Like (and unlike) a digital watch, the smartwatch is electronic. It can alert you to incoming texts and emails, play songs from your music collection, track your daily fitness, perform calculations, display social media interactions, tell you the weather, give GPS coordinates, launch a seemingly endless array of mobile apps, alert you to calendar appointments, provide contact information, allow you to browse shopping and dining venues, pay for things you buy, display teeny-weeny pictures of the people you love, secretly record conversations you might be having, and let you know if any registered sex offenders are in the vicinity of your wrist.

I’d be inclined to try one if it was, actually, an emancipated watch. But the fatal flaw is that it’s a parasite, an electronic leech that feeds off the user’s cell phone, where the watch’s ability to operate must be supported by a primary device. At this evolutionary point in the revolution, owning one amounts to owning two pieces of technology. In addition to its many functions, the advertisers point to the effort it saves you, not having to reach into your pocket or purse to check what your phone has to say. Now if it could just start my car, I would save all the time I spend looking for my keys.

I am reminded of what Douglas Adams wrote about earthlings in his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” how humans are “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” Then again, I may be speaking too harshly about the future. With the old year behind us, you’d think a person would be thrilled to step onto the platform of a fresh tomorrow.

As for me, I was gifted by the woman who loves me with an icon of the past, a 1953 Rolex, manufactured the year I was born. The watch has an original buckle and crocodile watchband. I wind it up in the morning, then strap the artifact to my wrist, so much more satisfying than recharging it overnight. All my watch does is keep track of the passing time, but it does so so beautifully.

David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at http://feelasophy.weebly.com/.