I keep my watch running fifteen minutes ahead of actual time — said actual time being defined by a radio-controlled atomic clock on the wall at work, which I set my watch to during another interminable meeting. This is silly, no matter how I look at it; I always end up having to do a bit of mental gymnastics when glancing down at my watch, although fifteen minutes on an analog watch is no big deal, mentally rolling back the big hand by ninety degrees. Plus the watch itself is sort of an anachronism with a 28,800 bph heart; we have cell phones which tell much better time — and never need to be set — on us most of the time anyway.
I used to own the kind of watch with both digital and analog displays, which was ultimately maddening as they refused to run on the same mechanism; either you learned to live with the fraction of a second discrepancy or you spent the better part of five minutes getting them sychronized adequately. Part of that thinking carried over when I switched to analog-only; I used to set the watch anywhere from five to ten minutes ahead, but reading the time and then subtracting seven minutes became another laborious chore. Fifteen minutes is a right angle and that makes it easy. When someone asks me the time, they’re really asking one of two questions: am I late, or how much longer do we need to wait? Depending on the reaction I want (don’t worry about it or hurry up; or not much longer now) I’ll round up or down to the nearest five minute chunk instead of the precise time, which I was all too guilty of with a digital watch. No one needs to know it’s precisely 5:28. No, 5:29.
Time is a descriptive, not a number; we have our tools to measure it but the easiest method is via shared experience. The moon set this morning in a roiling mist; I walked into the long light streaming in via the open curtains and looked up, surrounded by the quiet of a dark house before the lights come on. Or perhaps it was that golden minute twice a day when the sun illuminates the bottom of the clouds but hasn’t ascended to its throne in the sky, and those clouds, now blushing, skid past just as majestically. No? Shuffling your feet past that house — you know that house, where grass grows wild in the summers and the sidewalk is never shoveled — you step on the brittle fallen leaves to hear the crunch underfoot match the crisp tang of cool air and woodsmoke in your nose. I’ll bet you know exactly what time it is.