Once a year, most Americans decide to time travel. We pry our clocks off the wall and crank them forward. Welcome to the Twilight Zone of Daylight Savings Time.
We’ve all heard that Ben Franklin proposed the basic idea behind DST in 1784. This is the same guy who flew kites in thunderstorms and suggested that men marry ugly women because “all cats look grey in the dark.” I mention this only to say that while Ben, who co-authored the Declaration of Independence, invented bifocals, and all that … must have “lost it” in the end. Tinkering with time, eh Ben?
I decided to see if it was true, and looked it up. As always, I was distracted by the first entry: TIME.
Unfortunately, reading Grolier’s Encyclopedia entry on “time” left me perplexed. It opens with four torturous paragraphs, moaning that most words used to define time lead you in a circle. You can’t use “duration,” or the phrase “past, present, and future.” They’re only synonyms. Describing it in terms of hours, minutes and seconds just begs the question.
Warren Shibles does a lot of hand-wringing in his piece before he finally suggests that we can measure time by observing change. This can be done either mechanically, by gadgets we create, or EMOTIONALLY. This emotional response includes the feelings you get in Costco when it hits you that you’re standing in a line that is actually moving backward.
Time is relative, whether measured by our feelings or a chronometer. Einstein’s work showed the need for a frame of reference. But I was surprised at how others had handled the vagaries of time. The reason for DST is, after all, the changing length of days, a problem that gets more acute the further you go from the equator.
What to do? The Romans had a slick approach. They crammed the same number of hours in the day, even when fall came. Their water clocks, clepsydras, had a special feature. They were adjusted to make hours longer or shorter to fit the available daylight. No need to get up earlier or stay up later twice a year.
I was ready to get my own water clock and throw DST under the bus.
“But,” you say, “farmers NEED Daylight Savings to tend their crops.”
Wrongo. A recent story in The Marshfield Herald quoted their local Agriculture Agent Ken Schroeder. He said that DST “does not significantly affect farmers today.” So why then are we messing with time? Blame Germany; it adopted Daylight Saving in WW I, and the Allies soon followed suit. Apparently, they all agreed to start the day’s trench warfare just a bit later.
Or something like that.
The history of time-bending in the US was formalized with the concept of “Standard Time,” but it took WWII to make DST a standard feature of American culture. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Congress set the clocks ahead one hour during MOST of WWII, from Feb. 9, 1942, to Sept. 30, 1945. Lawmakers have continued to tinker with DST start-stop dates during the fuel crisis of the 1970s, and then again in 2007 under President George W. Bush.
So what does this all mean? Should we blame Franklin, Einstein, Germany, or Bush for messing with time, time and time again? I’ve always groused about resetting all the clocks, but this is the wrong view. Daylight Saving time is useful after all; it poses a deep, philosophical problem.
Question: What is time?
Answer: It’s a little joke we play on ourselves.
Think about it. DST proves time is a matter of social convention. I first encountered this fact in my high-school Spanish class. Our teacher told us clocks in bullrings had on-off switches. If an injured bullfighter needed extra time to bandage up, officials would stop the clock and let him do what he had to do. In this manner, the fights always started on time—by their clock.
The Romans would be proud.
A terrific idea, but why wait until 2 a.m. some Sunday night? Let’s reach over on Monday morning, 6 a.m, and give ourselves another hour of sleep. We’ll let our employers know that we’re operating on MST—Morning Snooze Time. If the boss has a problem with this, we can always set our watches back immediately after lunch, and even add an hour in the bargain to go to QET, or Quitting-Early Time. After all, we live in the land of personal choice where we’re suspicious of excessive government power. Who needs freedom of speech or the right to bear arms if you can be assured to the right to sleep in and leave work early?
Better yet, we can look to England for inspiration. During WWII, they adopted “double summer” time and set the clocks ahead two hours. But let’s not be outdone here. Why settle for two hours when we could skip TWO DAYS? Let’s cut Mondays and Tuesdays, and start the week on hump day.
Silly? Ben Franklin apparently thought so. His idea of DST, says the Britannica, was proposed in a “whimsical essay.” As comedians often say, he was “ONLY KIDDING.” Jennifer Bergen at Geek.com says Franklin dropped the DST nugget into an essay making fun of how the French all slept in.
But the joke’s on us. A CNN article claims that changing our clocks contributes to disruptions of sleep patterns that can cause health problems.
How sad, when it all began with a simple effort to make fun of the French. So now our humorless government is usurping our temporal freedoms. Time has been seized by a military junta—the US Navy.
The Navy maintains the US Master Clock. This is the standard used to calibrate GPS and, ominously, by the Department of Defense. Sounds like they’re prepared to invade your bedroom and force you to get up IN TOTAL DARKNESS.
Yeah? I’d like to see them try. They’ll have to pry my befuddled fingers away from the snooze button.
And how serious are they about this time standard? Check out the Navy’s website to see how they determine time.
Currently, the USNO Washington, DC mean time scale includes
44 atomic clocks:
13 hydrogen masers
… and a partridge in a pear tree.
But no matter how many clocks you have or how accurate they are, they can still lead you astray. Case in point, my favorite story about experiencing an emotional time warp. It happened years ago, on a Sunday, late in the fall. My grandfather had worked in the yard all afternoon and came inside to take a nap. Darkness fell. My grandmother wanted to be sure he’d get up for dinner, so she set the old wind-up alarm clock for 7 … pm. It went off. Grandpa arose, silenced the clock, showered, shaved, and showed up at the dinner table dressed in a suit with a briefcase at his side—ready for breakfast. Grandmother fell out of her chair laughing. Grandfather, a serious man who was not prone to error, wasn’t amused.
But the story shows how easily we’re derailed, and the fact is people hate messing with their sleep schedules. I’m sure this is why DST is resisted by Arizona, Hawaii and parts of Indiana. The news of the day says that Florida is thinking of adopting DST … permanently. If that works for them, I say go for it, but we need to do more.
We need to wrest control away from the bureaucrats.
Google Scholar points the way to a website that explains how, under current law, an “area” can move on or off DST. All that’s needed is for a deliberative, rule-making body to make the appropriate request.
So here’s my suggestion. Let’s put local time in the hands of the Shriners. There’s a group with a traditional civic duty and a keen sense of humor. They would, no doubt, speed time up or slow it down to suit their purposes on parade days. With their little cars, they could probably make it go around in circles, too. And I’m all for that. After all the work that goes into parade, I think most festive occasions end far too soon.
Time to do what the Romans do and slow it down a bit.
It’s no more cuckoo than DST.
Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe - "Or So it Seems™" - Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County.