stop and listen to the alarm clock (archived post)

by benjamin hollon on february 25, 2021

My watch’s alarm never wakes me up. My old one would beep for ten seconds before automatically snoozing for five minutes. Even if I heard it, my brain knew that if I could endure ten seconds of noise, I’d have an extra five minutes of sleep. I could never find the motivation to get up and out of bed when I heard it. My new one is even worse: it beeps for ten seconds without snoozing afterward.

That’s when I started the search for a new alarm clock. I started with a small, square digital clock that beeped nice and loudly whenever it went off. This solution worked great for a few weeks. Then, the clock’s battery started disconnecting for a split second, resetting both the time and the alarm. Finally, it mysteriously went silent. If I hold it to my ear, I can still hear the beeps, but it could never wake me up.

Desperate, I found an analog clock lying around. I tried it, and it worked great, but I found myself fascinated by the ticking sound it made. Something is mesmerizing about lying in bed, listening to a clock tick, and watching the second hand make its trek around the face. At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I think I’ve figured it out: hearing the clock tick gave me a sense of the passage of time.

With most clocks, nowadays, you aren’t forced to be consciously aware of time passing. Every so often, you glance at your watch or phone and find that a few more minutes have passed. It has a very haphazard feel to it. Time is passing, but it does so in small leaps. Time flies from peak to peak, occasionally stopping for breath to take its bearings and realize it’s late before flying on.

When a clock ticks, though, it reminds you continually that time is passing. I can almost hear it crying, “Hurry, work now, for the time you waste is never coming back!”

And yet, somehow, when I watch the clock and listen to it tick, time seems to stop.

I’m not entirely sure why. I used to expect that listening to a clock tick would make me more aware of the passage of time and that I’d hurry on to get as much done as I could. But that’s not what happens.

I think part of the reason is that I’m not used to directly sensing the passage of time. Such a direct message screaming, “There’s a second! There’s another!” is mesmerizing and blurs the reality of it all.

But the real reason I find it so fascinating has to do with scale.

Everyone’s unique view of the world comes built-in with a sense of scale. I can see it best in writing. Asimov, for example, writes about the macrocosm: galaxy-spanning civilizations, mathematic calculation of the future, and powerful robotic minds managing the world. On the other hand, Bradbury focuses on the microcosm: a fireman in charge of burning booksa man who can only send one family member to Mars, and a man running the first Martian hot dog stand. Both are valid approaches, and each author’s focus on scale reveals a glimpse of his worldview.

To be quite honest, I’m not sure which scale I focus on more, but I think that I usually focus on smaller things. I see overall narratives in my life, but they’re made up of dozens of short forays into new fields, projects, or activities.

And I think that’s why the ticking of my clock grabs my attention. It seems to conflate the two scales: there’s a sense of small moments passing one by one, but also a glimpse at the staggering number that has passed and will pass. I get caught in between the two and feel a momentary sense of awe.

To me, listening to a ticking clock is like the adage, “stop and smell the roses.” It gives me a moment to reconsider the scope of life and put everything in perspective.

I have a new alarm clock now (the minute hand broke on the one that ticks), but I’m keeping the ticking one around anyway. For the sound of the ticking. So I can stop and listen to the alarm clock.

Update: In May 2021, the new alarm clock also broke, continuing the inevitable trend.

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