Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

4/3/2005

Daylight, chronometrophobia, and biological clocks

File under: Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 8:25 am.

Last night, the clocks were shifted forward an hour. This was a great relief to me, as I was growing anxious at the increased disparity between the real time and the times the clocks told me it was. My body knows what time it is, and it’s distressing that for the past few weeks, the clocks have not agreed. Well, my body only knows what time it is at night. My mother’s knows during the day.

My mother does not wear a watch. Before I moved out of my parents’ house, she would routinely ask me for the time. The classic rejoinder - time to get a watch, har har - did not apply in Mom’s case, for at least two reasons: one, her wrists apparently emitted watch-killing vibes, rendering the damned things inoperative within weeks - I am not making this up; and two, it didn’t matter anyway, becuase she didn’t need one. (Also, she gave birth to me and raised me up and stuff, so I guess the least I can do is tell her what time it is.)

After a time, I began to suspect that Mom only asked me what time it was to show off. A typical exchange went something like this:

Mom: MS, do you have the time?

Me: Yeah, but what time do you think it is?

Mom: (thinking) Hmm…2:27?

Me: (consulting watch) Ooh…no, it’s 2:28.

On average, my mother was right about the time. The standard deviation of her guesses was three minutes at most.

Alas, this talent - which I referred to as a “biological clock” until people started snickering and I began to clue in as to why - was one that my mother did not pass on to me. For the record, I didn’t get her black-hair-blue-eyes combination either, which, now that I think of it, is making me reconsider my earlier “telling her what time it was was the least I could do” statement. But, anyway, from the time I was eight years old I wore a watch except in the shower and when doing wheelwork, and I have absolutely no intuition for time. None. I can look at my watch, see that it’s 3:45, and then half an hour later I have no idea if five minutes or three hours have passed.

Maybe I think too hard about it, and that’s why I can’t tell time without a watch during the day. Because I do possess a reliable biological alarm clock that I can mentally set the night before. I can’t tell you now, without consulting a timepiece, how much time has elapsed between the time I began to write this post and now; but I can schedule my waking times within a ten minute interval. I’ve woken up in time for 6:30 flights, and in times to catch the bus for a classes that began ten minutes after sunrise. I can’t remember the last time I arose to the buzz of an alarm clock, which is good, because I’m deathly afraid of them. Truly. The more ordinary fears of heights and of needles and of public speaking, which afflict other members of my immediate family, passed me by; but the thought of an alarm clock waking me up sends me into a panic. If I ever need to get up early, but don’t really need to be up early - for instance, if I have an office hour, or a class I’m attending - I won’t set my alarm, and I’ll sleep well, and I’ll wake up on time, feeling well-rested. But for more serious commitments - an early flight, an early class I’m teaching - I will set my alarm clock, just to be sure.

This has the same effect on me that drinking a double espresso before bed has on regular people. I lie awake, alert, because my alarm clock is on. I can’t sleep, because what if I sleep and my alarm clock wakes me up? But isn’t that the point? asks the Astute ReaderTM. Well, yeah. But it frightens me.

Finally I do manage to fall asleep, but it’s an uneasy sleep, often plagued by nightmares about - I swear to God - being woken up by an alarm clock. I’ve had dreams in which I’ve fallen asleep and woken up to an alarm clock, and fallen asleep again and woken up to an alarm clock again. And dreams in which a cacophony of alarm clocks sounds over and over again, and I wake up, startled. What exactly am I afraid of? Damned if I know.

And then, I eventually wake up for good, half an hour or so before the clock goes off. And I bolt out of bed and turn it off, and wonder why I bothered to turn it on in the first place. I can’t remember the last time I was ever actually woken by an alarm clock.

When there isn’t a specific time I need to be awake, I’m equally reliable: I wake up when it gets light. My bedroom window in my current place faces south, and the view is unobstructed by trees, and it’s been sunny lately; for the past two months I’ve been waking up ten to twenty minutes after the beginning of civil twilight. Certainly this plays a role in my exhaustion this semester, which far exceeds anything I experienced last term: I never teach before 11:00, and twice a week I don’t get home until 8:30 at night, and my body - rising before 6:00 each day - has been raging against that schedule as sunrise recedes.

So I was more than happy to set my watch ahead an hour today. I’m not going to be losing an hour of sleep; I’m going to be losing an hour of wake. This yearly ritual isn’t totalitarianism, as some claim; insisting on scheduling events according to a static twenty-four-hour clock and independently of daylight, now that’s totalitarianism, dammit. And as for the yearly stock market crash, synchronized with the spring clock changes - well, my investments are a lot more stable than that. Shifting the clocks twice a year corrects, to some extent, the disparity between the common clock and my biological one, and that’s all I care about right now.