Monday, August 16, 2010

Of time and The Honeymooners

I looked up at the clock the other night and heard the voice of Alice Kramden in my head: “Ralph, it’s a quarter to eight. You’re gonna be late for bowling.” (Thank you, involuntary memory.) As you may already have suspected, the big hand was (roughly) on the 9. Had I been looking at a digital clock, I would not have heard Alice’s voice. For the time would have been 7:45, or :44 or :46.

In the early 1980s I heard Susan Sontag give a talk that touched briefly on analog and digital timekeeping. The difference between them, Sontag said, was the difference between cyclical and linear conceptions of time. I was quite excited, as I had already come to the same conclusion in my grad-student head. Nowadays, I don’t find the cyclical/linear fascinating or even persuasive: a digital flip-board moves through time on wheels, and even an LCD or LED display cycles through a routine. The real differences between analog and digital timekeeping lie elsewhere. An analog clock admits of interpretation: it lets us look at time from different directions. If you’re waiting for someone who was due to arrive at 7:00 and is now forty-five minutes late, it’s 7:45. They’re forty-five minutes late. But if that someone is supposed to arrive at 8:00, it’s a quarter to. They’ll be here in fifteen minutes! Analog also encourages genial imprecision: a few minutes after eight, almost nine. Who’s counting? I like too the quaint grade-school-like fractions of analog time — halves and quarters. And metaphorical faces and hands add a human element unmatched by a digital “display.”

I have never owned a digital watch, and the clocks in our house are old-school. But I do prefer using a digital alarm clock. I like to wake up exactly, so as not to be late for bowling.

[Alice warns Ralph about the time in the “Pardon My Glove” episode of The Honeymooners, March 17, 1956. About that flip-board: in the 1980s, flip-board clocks were mechanical, with placards moving on wheels. Now flip-board clocks are virtual, showing up in screensavers and phone apps.]

comments: 2

Adair said...

"Pardon My Glove" is one of my favorite episodes. I especially love the exchange between Ed and Ralph as they try to figure out why there wasn't a surprise party on the night of Ralph's birthday:

"That's the surprise."


"That there ain't gonna be no party!"

Ed Norton always had a unique sense of logic!

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, he did. I feel lucky to have come of age when these thirty-nine episodes were on television, night after night after night.