Monday, January 05, 2009

61 Seconds

It was quite by accident that I discovered that an extra second was going to be added to 2008. A "leap second" it was called, an addition to atomic clocks that meant that the very last minute of 2008 actually contained 61 seconds.

First they tell me Pluto isn't really a planet and now I have to get my arms around a 61-second minute?

According to the folks at CNN, the world's official clock (the Coordinated Universal Time), which is used for broadcasting time signals and is essential for running GPS and the internet, is "extremely accurate." "By comparison," they go on to say, "the Earth is far less reliable."

There's something about that statement that raises my cockles. Who is CNN, or anyone else for that matter, to call the Earth unreliable? Doesn't the sun come up every morning? Don't the seasons move in and out of the world's revolving door in a relatively orderly fashion? Doesn't the tide push and pull dependably enough that sailors managed to circumnavigate the globe long before GPS?

I am not a Luddite. I write this column on a computer. I lock and unlock my car by remote access, as they say. I have grown increasingly attached to my cracker-sized iPod. But it bothers me that we, all of us, have become so dependent upon precision.

Airlines schedule flights to leave at 10:43 and passengers start hyperventilating when, at 10:45, the plane is still awaiting clearance to take off.

At the Beijing Olympics, Usain Bolt won the gold medal and set the world record in the men's 100-meter dash, finishing in 9.69 seconds. The silver medalist finished two-tenths of a second slower and no one outside the track and field community remembers his name.

A couple of nights ago, when the moon was the thinnest sliver of silver light dangling over the flat and empty acres of the farm, I stopped what I was doing to stare at the stars. They looked like a handful of diamonds strewn carelessly across a black velvet scarf. There was just enough chill in the air to make me pull my arms tight to my chest as I stretched my neck to take it all in.

I don't know how long I stood there. The clarity I breathed in, the hope that settled on my shoulders, the smile that raised itself like a flag cannot be measured in time.

A new year is always an unsettling combination of anticipation and anxiety, this one, perhaps, more than any in my recent memory. In the world delineated by political boundaries and in the one delineated by my random thoughts, there are questions whose answers exist but are not yet visible. There are choices whose consequences are not yet manifest. There are opportunities whose rewards are not yet imagined. And neither the questions nor the choices nor the opportunities will be resolved in one extra second.

The people at CNN say that the unreliability of the Earth is based upon its inability to rotate at a constant speed, its tendency to wobble as a result of volcanoes and earthquakes and such. That makes our planet sound a lot like each of us, subject to our own volcanoes and earthquakes.

What doesn't sound like us, with our calendar-turning uncertainties, is the idea that, by adding a leap second every now and then, we can make sure that "the Sun remains overhead at noon."
I'm not ready for that responsibility. Any extra seconds that I am offered will be spent watching the stars and wishing on any that happen to fall.

Copyright 2009

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