Ever watchful of time's might Essay: A trusted piece of jewelry tells of love for a father and brother and, without emotion, how few moments are left to us.


My watch got sick, so I turned it over to the watch doctor. It was away so long I began getting used to the idea it was about finished. It's about half a century old now, maybe older.

Before they called me and told me it was OK, I had prepared myself to spend the rest of my life without it -- with no watch at all, in fact. I would be a watch widower.

This resolution, not lightly made, was fed by two streams of persuasion. The first was the fact that the watch, a Rolex Oyster, had belonged to my father. He didn't give it to me. My mother did, after he died.

It has helped me to remember him. Also, he had received it as a gift from my older brother, Edward (named after my father), who gave it to him when he (my brother) was in the Army Air Corps. Most people don't know there was an Army Air Corps before there was an Air Force. Everyone wore brown then, except the Navy, which wore dark blue, when they weren't wearing whites. When the Air Force was formed as a separate branch of the Armed Forces, after World War II, it dressed its people up in uniforms of a lighter blue than the Navy's. Then the Army switched from brown to green. Why? I'll never know.

But back to the watch.

The watch also helped me to remember my brother, who also died, at about the same age as my father, in his late 60s. As such, the watch has a certain sentimental value, but of course only to me.

Now a lot of people say that without thinking much about what it means: "sentimental value." Until recently I was one of them. When I did finally think about it -- during my deliberations on whether I would go watchless the rest of my life -- I realized that the watch had no intrinsic sentimental value, but rather it had the value of emotion I invested it with. It had become a fetish, for one of the definitions of a fetish is an object of unreasoning devotion or exaggerated concern.

That about describes my interest in it. So I guess that makes me a fetishist. At first that made me a little uncomfortable. When one thinks of fetishism in the context of modern life, one thinks of shoes, or more peculiar accessories.

I guess the greatest measure of my devotion to this fetish was my intention of having no other watch when it finally gives up the ghost. Sentimental value, like an airline ticket, is not transferable. It would be more convenient if it were: I could transfer it to a newer timepiece.

But as I said, there were two streams that led to my decision to contemplate a life of watch-less-ness. The second one flowed from the fecund mind of my bartender one evening after I noticed something as he reached for a glass.

"You've got no watch," I observed.

"Never wear a watch," he declared.

I assumed the reason was his schedule: It was so regular, his daily activities so repetitive, he knew what time it was by virtue of where he was and what he was doing.

I assumed wrong; there was more to it.

"I don't like watches."


"Watches don't tell you what time it is. They tell you how much time you have left."

With that he pulled back his sleeves and exposed his empty wrists. He was like an addict who had beaten his addiction, proud to show his arms all empty of needle tracks.

He was not finished.

"Observe a man for a while: Then when he looks at his watch, go over a minute later and ask him the time. He'll look at his watch again."

I've tried it and it happened just as he predicted, which makes me think my bartender is wise. But it also made me realize it's easier to appreciate wisdom, enjoy its ironies, than to live wisely. I continued wearing a watch, referred to it compulsively, repetitively, all the time admiring the freedom of the watchless bartender.

By now you might appreciate why my tentative pledge to go watchless is so difficult, as I said above. First there is the question of loyalty: Can I abandon the watch without leaving behind memories of my father and brother? Didn't the watch assure their persistence?

Then there is the question of my liberty. I can't keep my eyes away from the watch. I have begun to regard it as a handcuff tying me to the rack of time. What does it do but keep me constantly attentive to the seconds, minutes and hours of life as they disappear.

Time is a much heavier burden than most people realize, one they often don't even know they are carrying.

J. S. Fraser, founder of the International Society for the Study of Time, wrote that knowledge of time is the source of all insecurity and anxiety in human beings. Religion emerged among humans simultaneously with their realization of a sense of time. Its purpose is to allay the anxiety that time knowledge brings: the expectation of death.

In his 1987 book, "Time, the Familiar Stranger," Fraser refers to the "puzzlement and hedonistic melancholy of the time-knowing creature." Humans alone have this sense of tragedy.

My watch came back from the shop all shined up, its big round face ticking my life away in perfect synchronization with clocks across the world. I aged simultaneously in London, Moscow, Beijing and on back to here.

But I couldn't leave it on the bureau, for the reasons given above. Before long I lost all desire to, and so I bore with it.

One morning I woke up and looked at the electric clock on the bureau, then to my wrist. My watch was running fast, by about an hour and a half. It ran like a racing heart. Would it burst? Would it stop? Would it finally die?

I kept wearing it and wound it every night. For three days it ran ahead of the rest of the world. I felt as if I were living in the future, and the thought made me giddy.

About a week ago I woke up and looked again at the electric night clock, then to my watch. They were together again. My watch has run perfectly since. I wear it, of course. But I don't have the same warm sentiment about it I once did.

And as for the idea of freeing myself of these horrid time measuring devices for good one day -- well, that has been set aside for the time being. Possibly for good. The Rolex is running like, well, a fine watch. Who knows, it may outlive me as it outlived my brother and father before me.

What a dark thought.

Pub Date: 12/15/97

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