Deus Ex Savings Time

[Advance warning: this post may involve nostalgia.]

I never realized how weird Daylight Savings Time was until I returned to it.

The People’s Republic of China does not have such a conceit.  In fact the PRC doesn’t go in for much American-model timefoolery at all: no time zones either, and a land mass comparable to the US, makes for 2pm solar noon over Lhasa, and the occasional 9 am sunrise.

I lived in rural Anhui for a couple years after college, which I’ve mentioned before.  If you chase back into the darkest recesses of this blog you will see some travel notes from those days.  This isn’t the post where I talk about the cultural experience of living abroad, though that’s a rich topic—I made friends, improved my Chinese, saw my world from outside itself, taught cool students, ran past water buffalo in the rain, learned taiji, climbed around ancient abandoned towers, drank tea in temples, learned to cook and to play mah jiang and work through local politics, etc. etc. etc.  There’s so much to write about all that, it’s hard to fit out my mouth.  Fortunately I wrote a great deal down at the time (and I really should go back and re-read those letters…).  Anyway.

My housemate and fellow teacher Wyatt and I shared a hastily-built apartment in an old plaster-and-concrete school building—a few rooms that used to house biological specimens in formaldehyde until a gang of students shattered the jars in the Cultural Revolution.  Apparently the specimens were counterrevolutionary.  Or the teacher was.

We had wall-mounted heater units, space heaters basically, and no insulation.  I’d never slept with so little separating me from the outside world.  In winter, the apartment was cold and damp; we wore sweaters and fingerless gloves and drank whiskey to keep warm.  The heater worked, but not brilliantly—the heat focused on our desks, and it was much more effective at drying out our throats than at toasting up our rooms.  Still, by having heaters at all we were living in comparative luxury set beside our students in their dorms, and for that matter many other teachers—which reinforced our desire to use the heaters as little as possible, opting for more elegant local solutions like heated blankets and thin-walled mugs of perpetually refilled tea and glass-and-felt-and-iron heating elements set on our desktops.  In our second year we didn’t use the wall-mounted heaters at all.

Damn, this started to turn into the uphill both ways story.  Anhui ain’t Boston—it’s warmer in winter even than Tennessee, so the absence of heat, while uncomfortable, wasn’t a huge issue.  And anyway my point isn’t the chill, it’s the proximity to the outside world.  When the solstice approached, it came devouring inch by inch—we watched seconds of sunlight slip away like sands running down an hourglass.  Then, the sun fought back from the darkness.  We felt it on our faces and in the air—and, of course, we saw it.  Minute by minute, summer regained the field.  And when the sun set at seven for the first time in months, we knew how the victory came to pass: we’d watched every second as the flower bloomed.

I’ve missed that since my return to the States.  I don’t live as close to the outside as I did then—that’s not advisable in the Greater Boston Area, among other things, though we do keep the heater low in the winter and lack air conditioning which is a much bigger deal for the southerner in me who grew up seeing central air as basic a household need on par with a front door.  I’ve been in New England five years now and every year the sun dies.  It sets at four and change p.m. on the solstice, and then we start winning our way back from Hell.  The battle goes well—you mark victories off in quarter-hours, oh my god the sun didn’t set until quarter ’til five today, and then, and then.

One day in early March, you wake up and find you’ve been fiat-awarded an hour.

If the year is a story, this is deus ex machina at its most blatant.  Just as the Hero emerges from the Underworld, Ceres descends from on high with a longwinded speech about how farmers something something agricultural work day something else, and all of a sudden the quest is much less urgent.  Oh, turns out an earthquake wiped out Sauron’s army and broke his tower.  Still, might as well chuck the ring into the volcano just to be sure, amirite?

Can’t be too careful.

This is not a legislative proposal.  This is not a Call to Action.  At best this is a bit of nostalgia coupled with a gentle reminder: there is a living world beneath the concessions of our clocks.  That’s where we all live.  And while we’re forced to render unto Clock what is Clock’s, maybe we should remember there’s more to the story of our year than Daylight Savings Monday.

3 Responses to “Deus Ex Savings Time”

  1. Paul Weimer

    Thanks for sharing this, Max. I do think that (especially) city dwellers get disconnected from how time works in the real world, as opposed to the tyranny of the clock and when we change it. I didn’t know China had *one* time zone. That’s wild.

  2. Karin Tidbeck

    This was a wonderful read. Thank you!


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