Photo by Brad Dosland
Recently, a former student shared a photo he’d taken of me in 1986, during my first year advising the community college newspaper where I worked. When I saw it, I was struck by how much younger I looked all those years ago, but I also noticed the watch on my left wrist. That timepiece—and many others like it over the years—was part of my daily wardrobe, whether it was a weekday or the weekend. I can’t remember when I started wearing one, but I know it provided me with a weird sense of control. I always knew what time it was, I knew what I had to do next, and I knew how much longer I had to do whatever it was I was doing at the moment. In those newspaper advising days, it served as a constant reminder that we needed to have the paper ready to go to the printer by 5 p.m. on Wednesday. If we didn’t, one of us—usually me—would have to drive it to the printer, more than 20 miles away.
I’m just acutely aware of how quickly time passes, whether I’m racing through some task, or lying on the couch reading a book.
Just below the surface, the watch terrorized me. If I wasn’t close to meeting whatever time goal stood in front of me, I was probably not doing a good job. At least that’s how I interpreted it in those days. If the paste-up of the newspaper wasn’t almost finished, and the watch hands were moving toward 5, I would think about how much better I needed to be at motivating my students and taking control of the situation. In other words, I used the watch to torture myself, although I didn’t think of it that way then. During the pandemic, when I was working from home, where there is a clock in every room, I stopped wearing a watch. Not only could I just look at the wall or my computer to determine the time, but I didn’t really have anything that I needed to rush to. All meetings were on Zoom—right in front of me. I didn’t even have to find the time to walk across campus.
When I retired a year later, I never even considered going back to my watch. In fact, I've even happily lost track of the time occasionally, something I never would have done when I had that watch to keep me vigilant. More than anything, I find myself thinking about time in an entirely new way. Instead of trying to fit 14 things into an 8-hour day, I see a different pattern in the days and hours than I used to. I think now of early morning, before lunch, after lunch, and evening. I do a variety of things during each of those blocks, and the structure of each changes throughout the week.
After working for more than 40 years, it’s been weird to think of the hours in the day without picturing a calendar with a task or meeting assigned to each hour, but I’m finally getting used to it. For the first time in my life, I actually have time to work on something as long as I need to. I can sit down and relax for a few minutes after running and working out in the mornings instead of racing to the shower in order to get to work on time. I also have a chance to work at a pace that seems more like me and less like the schedule of the place I work for. I have to admit, though, it took me a while to figure out what my own schedule really was. I still get up early and go for a run, but there’s a nice, long session of coffee and The New York Times in between. I guess that’s what I’d say about the rest of the day, too. I write, and do a little consulting and a few other newer activities, but I don’t feel compelled to do any one thing all day, or rush through whatever I'm doing at the moment. Everything is just a little slower and a little less dire.
The biggest difference I feel about time these days has nothing to do with a watch. I’m just acutely aware of how quickly time passes, whether I’m racing through some task, or lying on the couch reading a book. At nearly 71, I know my time is limited. I still have a million things I want to do, and a relatively short time to do them, but I’m not letting any old construct of the hours in a day stop me. Maybe not wearing a watch helps me to focus less on the limitations on my time, and more on the richness and possibility of the time I'm in at this moment.