15 January 2024

Does anybody really know what time it is?

           Einstein taught us that time is relative.  Popular writers will say this explains why an hour in a waiting room is longer than an hour having a beer with your best friend.  This isn’t true.  These occasions feel different because your perception of passing time is highly contingent on the qualities of the experience.  Einstein’s got nothing to do with it.

    The human factor, in those cases, has mostly to do with patience.  I’m not an expert on the subject, since I have none.  For me, a dentist’s office, traffic jams, my living room while waiting for my wife to put on her makeup, my bedroom as a child waiting for Christmas morning to commence, the queue administered by the NTSB, are torture chambers. 

            Checkout lines at the food store are the ultimate gladiator combat zone of patience.  Recently, I got behind a crowd of cheerful partygoers preparing for a big night at home.  They were having a lot of fun, and the food store employees were infected by the high spirits.  There was non-stop joking and laughing.  I was dying, since I really needed to get through that line as soon as possible, since I had to flee the store for reasons inexplicable at the time.  In retrospect, I was merely impatient. 

            So I bailed out of my position and went to the line next door, where only a single elderly lady was ready to find her way through the self-checkout. This was a huge mistake.  She had no idea how to navigate the automated system, stumbling her way through every transaction.   She had also stacked her purchases to overflowing in the little bin at the rear of the cart, and having angled the thing so she was now at the front end, had a great deal of difficulty retrieving her packages, fruits and vegetables.  I rescued this effort by moving all her stuff onto the conveyor belt.  She thanked me, while complaining loudly that nothing in life worked as well as it used to.  I agreed.

The young guy in charge of helping people through the self-checkout came over about a dozen times to recalibrate the system after the woman did some novel things with the barcodes and buttons at her disposal.  The guy had to call over his supervisor at least twice with the words, “Never seen this one before.”

I became the old lady’s fiduciary for the final act of cashing out, which involved discovering that only one of her fistfuls of credit and debit cards actually worked.  I nearly wept with joy when the word “Approved” finally flashed on the little screen.   Somewhere in the middle of all this, the partygoers left the store, in full celebration.  We waved to each other.

            The lesson for me was a little bit of patience at first would have saved a huge amount of time, and stomach acid, on the back end. 

             I know several people who have virtually no sense of passing time.  Whether a blessing or a curse is up for debate, since one can easily fill in both sides of the ledger.  I have an acute sense of time, which I blame on the German side of my family, who considered five minutes early as being on time.  Not five minutes before, nor five minutes after.  None of them wore a watch, since they could tell you the exact time aligned with the GMT down to the nearest second.  So I’m almost never late, though someone I live with is never on time, unless by happy accident. 

Another relative of mine ascribes his wife’s time blindness to the perfidy of the Magic Clock.  If she needs twenty minutes to complete a task, she merely looks at the Magic Clock, which will tell her five is all she needs.  Her surprise at the actual outcome is endlessly recurring and never instructive.

  My German grandfather was a clock smith, who would translate time’s march into pendulums, springs, axels and gear sprockets.  He filled his house with about 100 clocks, most of which were strikers.  At midnight, the house would erupt with bells, chimes and ancient clackers.  His family would sleep through it all, since it was merely a cacophonous reminder that another day had just ended, a little bit of life consumed, and new days ahead, a few more bits yet to be endured. 


  1. Chris, my half-German mother always said that my English father would be late to his own funeral. It did seem there were some long delays that day.

  2. Elizabeth Dearborn15 January, 2024 14:33

    Never used a self-checkout & I will not ever use one, as it would encourage the $tore$ not to hire more cashiers. Recently I've noticed a few places are getting rid of their self-checkout machines. This is a good sign!

  3. I swear, my Irish husband has no sense of time (always either running early or late), but an internal GPS system that works like a dream.
    I have an internal clock that keeps me on time and on track no matter what - and only a normal GPS system.
    Some of it is what you're born with.


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