The ancients had five timepieces: the stars, the seasons, the moon, the sun and the human pulse. Today we have moved beyond the Stone Age to the Atomic and Diamond ages. In our era of splitting atoms there is a clock that is driven by the oscillation of cesium. Rolex exemplifies the Diamond Age. If you ever doubted the idea of an expensive Swiss wristwatch, look in any window in Zurich. There are more watches than the wrists in the world.
To make up the difference, we could be like a Bolivian businessman arriving in Lima who shared with his travel companion that he wore two watches. One was for La Paz time and the other for wherever he stood.
Clocks divide time. Whatever that is. It is tough to explain even if our watch costs tens of thousands of dollars or resonates at millions of times a second. Measuring it has changed.
Before there were cities, nomads followed the stars as they cared for their flocks. Stars are for the long view of time. Special people stare at stars. They stay out late night after night gazing at tiny spots in the darkened sky. The twinkling specks of photons light-years away are not the kind of measuring stick one would use to time Usain Bolt sprinting through 100 meters.
Distant man became agrarian and gave up the life of wandering. Seasons were now supreme. They told the story of the planting and harvest. Seasons were the original instructors in the rain, wind and flood cycles. They were also harsh teachers about floods and droughts.
The sun was used by different civilizations. Egyptians were one. The Aztecs were another. They were both builders of giant monuments. Their gods were the sun. It was industrial. Re and Quetzalcoatl were up, then down. The sun was order. It controlled their lives.
The moon on the other hand makes its own time. It can go to bed early or get up late. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. The moon is romantic. It shines upon the lunatics in love.
It is the moon, not the stars or sun, that emotionally captivates us. We can’t see either stars or suns. One category is too faint and the other too bright. In contrast the moon reflects light. Its illumination is not its own. That makes it modest.
The moon has its own individual revolving orb. The lunar months are shorter than the seasons and fail to follow the course of the earth’s tilting in space. Even today both descendants of Judah and the adherents of Mohammed reckon their religious festivities with the lunar calendars. This gives variety to their New Years and holy days. Imagine being dressed in shorts watching the New York Times Square crystal ball welcome midnight.
When our five sons were away years at a time, it was the moon that permitted me to imagine them near. The earth rotation was too often. The seasons too far apart and the stars were blotted out by the city’s light pollution. I knew we saw the same moon as far away as Europe, the Caribbean or one time zone.
When loved ones are away for so long, one doesn’t count the phases of the moon. Its different shapes don’t tell the time as much as they capture the moment.
The human pulse breaks the day into seconds and minutes. The reliability of the pounding heart is not perfect. Sometimes it is rabbit fast or is tortoise slow. It can be irregular or even irregularly irregular. Anyone with atrial fibrillation will recognize that tattle-tale beat.
Time is inexplicable to everyone but physicists, but even they cannot really explain the retarding of time when there is longing for an absent child. Nor does science completely explain how the pulse and time speed up when they come home.
Timepieces are unique. We can choose the stars, the seasons, the sun or Rolex. However, the moon is free and will be on time even if it is its own.
Joseph Cramer, M.D, is a board certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years, a hospitalist at Primary Children Hospital and the University of Utah. He can be reached at [email protected].