Sunday, November 6, 2011

Out of Joint

My alarm clock squawks at me at 6:38 AM, a particular minute selected to leave me just enough time to get dressed, eat, and brush my teeth and be out the door to catch the three-minutes'-walk-away Metro to work at 7:05.

I dress and I eat and I brush and I'm gone. And I get to the Metro, and the escalators aren't working. And the metal gating is shut across the entrance at the bottom. It's unusual, I reason, but perhaps they don't open until just before the first train arrives. (At 7 AM on a Sunday, this kind of thinking makes sense.)

Looking past the escalators, I spy a guy waiting by the elevator. There's a little red light visible below the call button, indicating he's trying to get in touch with WMATA folk because there's a problem. Before long he gives up and walks off. Just after he leaves I hear some noise emanating from the call wall. I go over in the hopes of carrying the departed man's torch and finding out what's going on, but communication ceases just as I arrive.

I drift back to the escalator, wondering when they're going to open and if I'm going to need to catch the bus, and then the same crackle of static and unintelligible sound bursts from the call wall. Again I saunter over, and again I'm too late.

Now I'm getting concerned. I'm going to miss the train, it's almost (and I pull out my phone to see what time it is)--


And there's a moment of confusion, of displacement. whatwhatwhaaaaaat? And then, realization:


The idea that time could be changed by fiat has always seemed a little weird to me, but in reality it is both sensible--the 24 hour day is an invention of man, not a fact of nature, and as such is open to revision--and regular, as is collective ambivalence toward it. The New Republic thought President Bush and Congress's lame attempt to lower the nation's energy use by adjusting the duration of Daylight Savings Time and "changing time itself" was "unsettling and creepily disproportionate," and DST itself has come under close scrutiny since its inception.

Time and history itself have been subject to edicts of rulers and religions since, well, forever. Setting aside the multiplicity of calendars that exist across cultures (including the Mayans' whose ostensible end next year will doom us all), the passage and record of time has changed frequently within Western society. Pope Gregory VIII instituted a new calendar in 1582, but because England had by then become Protestant and contrary to papal edict, it continued using the Julian calendar until 1752, and lost 11 days in the process, going from September 2 to 14 in a moment, and moved the beginning of the year from March to January. The revolutionary government of France established a new chronology entirely, starting over with Year Zero, and instituting a new calendar of its own. Compared to these measures, Daylight Savings is mere technocratic tinkering.

Yet it's enough to offset; my feeling of displacement never quite leaves. I arrive at work earlier than usual, 7:30ish, but nobody else is there, and the kitchen is locked. It's not until just after 8 that I can get in and get started, and so everything gets off now to a late start. The morning flies, and after a brief lunch spasm of food traffic business trickles. I'm lucky to find some corn beef that needs slicing to keep me occupied for 45 minutes, after which I'm told to leave, around 3:30.

After picking up a book at the library I head across town and settle in to a cafe with the book and a $3.30 mocha to pass the time before the shift at my other job. As five o' clock nears, I start feeling increasingly anxious.

Don't I have somewhere to be? I check the time, and it's only five, I still have another hour before my shift starts. But if the regular flow of time had been maintained, if Daylight Savings hadn't set us all back, I would be starting the shift now. It's incredibly disorienting, like time travel with a dash of deja vu.

The sense of existing outside of time isn't novel--it's the reason for jet lag (travel by jet, of course, being a sign of man's mastery of nature that by crossing vast distances so quick he has managed to shrink time). But air travel is disruptive to one's routine, unless, of course, one is a pilot or stewardess. Daylight Savings upsets the hours of the day but leaves one's patterns of activity untouched. The surprise in being caught unawares after the changeover is what makes it different from voluntarily getting up earlier. The disconnect in the expectation and the actual result--of having, by realization, an extra hour that just before did not exist in one's mind--makes one acutely aware one's chronological position, as if flowing down the river of time one had gotten stuck against some branches or rocks and suddenly could stop and take stock of one's surroundings.

Not that in such a state one's sensitivity necessarily translates into accuracy. Before my shift started I was chatting with a co-worker. I checked the time, 5:45, and then continued talking. Eventually she asked what time it was, we would have to get going soon.

"5:51, I'll bet you," I said. If I've checked recently I'm usually pretty spot-on in my guestimation of how many minutes have elapsed. And yet, it was in reality only 5:47.

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