In the Western Sky

January 18, 2010


dedicated to the families of Taylor McLaughlin and Michael Wagner and to the people of Haiti.

It’s calendar time, complimentary, sitting free by cash registers, arriving unsolicited in the mail, hand-delivered by home heating oil truck drivers. Filled with photographs: nature scenes, brooks, bridges, flowers, leaves, snow, deer; or prints, predictable, ever-recycling Norman Rockwell prints. This one, the Rockwell, I flip through quickly, having seen them before, headed to the paper bin when November stops me.

A man with a worn hat and wrinkled chin sits atop a paint-splattered stepladder, his eyes peer intently through bottom-of-his-nose glasses at a gold watch that he holds in his left hand. His right arm and hand reach up to the side and grasps the point of the minute hand of a large public clock. Outside. Up high. In a big city (New York?) with hotel marquees, fire escapes and white sky in the background.

He has just repaired the clock, or made some adjustment. Tools jut akimbo from his small kit as he sets the correct time, which he carries around with him in his pocket. He looks like the kind of man who would know the correct time, by nature, or temperament.

Yet looks are deceiving and the man is really Rockwell’s neighbor or a dentist and not a big city timekeeper. And even I know that real timekeepers get their time from somewhere. In Rockwell’s age it was likely the local train station which got its time every day, around noon, by radio, from the on-duty astronomer at the Naval Observatory in Washington, DC. “It’s noon… now…. set your clocks.” And the Observatory? They got it from the sun, and the stars, and the great turning wheel of sky, measuring shadows, angles, tangents. Naval because, before time zones and the trains that made them necessary, ship’s captains knew that time and position were but two variables in one equation and knowing the precise time somewhere (D.C., for example) would help them plot their position more precisely when out in the featureless expanse of sea. The Observatory had a great ball (of which the one in Times Square is an odd cousin) which would drop each day precisely at noon as the timekeepers on board ships in the harbor watched, hands holding hands, ready on their clocks.

Sun watchers, if not worshippers; stargazers, finding, creating, time and position and order on this lonely planet, this little harbor in the vast expanse of space. And moon watchers, month keepers, day markers. There was a time when month really meant moon and moon meant measure . In Hebrew and Islamic calendars it still does. In some rural communities “new moon” still means “new moon,” the first tiny sliver that is spotted in the sky, instead of the “no moon” of modern hang-on-the-wall paper calendars. The local rabbi or imam retreats to the nearest high place as the moon disappears and watches and waits night after night, until the tiny crescent appears in the west, and then returns to the village to declare the start of the new month and set the dates of its festivals
.
The very words declare and proclaim are rooted in the same source that yielded the Latin calendar, for the Roman priests (known as pontiffs) did much the same as the imams and rabbis, watching and waiting, seeing, and then announcing, proclaiming the calends, the first day of the new moon, and setting the ides, the day that “divides” (same root as ides) the month, and, as such, is also the full moon and fifteenth.

Nowadays we can buy lunar calendars, moon phase calendars. Solar calendars fill book store windows and arrive with oil deliveries disguised as junk mail. We don’t have to go outside and look up. The moon is a decoration that we notice, or not, time is a beep on a watch, the sun wheels unheralded except when its setting is pretty. Even astrologers sit in their rooms, staring down at paper charts filled with colored lines and portentous squiggles.

Everyone knows, or can know, from this year to eternity, what day of the week January First will fall on, or Easter, or Yom Kippur, or Eid. We have spreadsheets and software and mainframe savants to show us. And every time we go online (if we’ve upgraded) our computer sends a few lines of code to the Time Servers, based not in D.C., but at a physics lab in Boulder, Colorado, and they respond over cables or satellites and adjust the little timekeepers that inhabit and order our motherboards. And since 1967, United States official time has not depended on the position of the sun over the Capitol but rather on the wavering, leaping orbits of electrons around the nuclei of cesium atoms in a special clock at that Colorado lab — they say it will not lose a second until 20 million years have passed. But at least it is an orbit, however small and quirky, still an element of nature, and some Rockwellian caricature of a physicist must still squint and monitor the output and upload the updates.

But what will the earth be like in 20 million years? What will we, it, have lost besides one second? Not to mention what or who, will be lost today, or tomorrow. So we mark our days, one way or the other, yearning for order, for predictability, looking at Norman Rockwell prints, and waiting, expectant in the darkness, wrapped in its mystery and, at times, its pain, searching for and creating meaning, assurance, and watching the western sky for evidence of new and bright beginnings.

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