Writing, publishing, geekdom, and errata.

Atomic Time

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This essay was originally written in 2001, and can be found on my personal website. Feel free to poke around the stories, essays, and other weirdness collected therein. And Happy New Year. - Steve


“It’s okay. My watch is set to atomic time.”

I knew better, yet I briefly expected to see a small nuclear generator strapped to his wrist, ticking the seconds away with radioactive precision. But no, it was just a regular plastic wristwatch (though with calculator pad and memory function) set just that morning to the most accurate time in the world. Apparently even more accurate than even the ticker clock on the Weather Channel, which disagreed with the watch by four seconds.

Normally, such a small difference would be insignificant, but this was different. This was important. Someone – nobody was quite sure who – had noticed that we were running out of year. That there were only minutes left until midnight – few seconds remained of the first (or last, depending on how you want to count) year of the millennium. The previously subdued party erupted in a frenzy of channel-flipping, trying to locate the ageless Dick Clark or, failing that, a ball dropping somewhere in the world: an effort to find an “official” countdown to chant with.

There are times when it becomes painfully obvious that I no longer live on the East Coast; New Year’s is the most obvious of them. As the channels flipped by, news, after-midnight televised parties resplendent with second-rate pop icons and drunken hordes, and even the occasional rerun of a sitcom confronted us. It seemed that our only timekeeping salvation would be in the precision of a small quartz diode, only hours ago calibrated to the National Institute of Standards and Technology atomic clock, a feat made possible by technology and an Internet connection.

“We’ve still got three minutes,” the watch-holder announced. The relief was tangible – for a moment there, we were afraid we’d missed it entirely. Paces slowed, and our final preparations continued at a more sedate pace. That is, until the bathroom door swung open, and another guest who had missed the ruckus raised their watch aloft.

“I set my watch to atomic time this morning! We’ve only got sixty seconds left!”

I caught sight of my reflection in the window; outside the night was dark and freezing, moonlight shone upon the snow. Behind me the ghostly reflections of people scurried, bearing hats, noisemakers, poppers, champagne. Someone was making sure the kids – collectively and safely sequestered downstairs – were on-cue and taken care of.

And we had no idea if the New Year had come yet.

Did our resolutions count yet? Did we have time for a last cigarette, a last sugary snack, a final drink? Was it time to kiss someone, or wish for someone to kiss? Should we be toasting, singing, reminding our loved ones that they were our loved ones after all? Was it time yet to start fresh, to wipe the slate clean and try to do things a little better than we had before? Nobody knew for certain – the watches disagreed with the television channels, and all of them disagreed among themselves. No ball (or Dick Clark) was visible yet, and suggestions flew back and forth. “Try CBS.” “ABC! Dick Clark’s on ABC!” “Headline News always has a clock!” The mood was nearly frantic – several of the timekeepers already claimed we were in the New Year. Then:

“Why don’t we just say we have twenty seconds left and start counting?”

In a rollercoaster of emotion, the thought ran through our brains. Suddenly, we would decide when our New Year began. We, nobody else, would decide when to start anew, to hold ourselves to our resolutions, to love our families and remember our friends. From there, from that simple idea, realization spun outward: If it was possible to just say that the New Year began whatever time we wanted today, then we could do the same each day. Every day, every midnight, every minute could be a New Year, a new chance, a new opportunity.

The New York ball suddenly glistened upon the television in gaudy glory; someone had found it. It was a replay; Mayor Guiliani smiling as the seconds counted downward an hour ago (despite the “LIVE” blazoned in the upper-left hand corner). Dutifully, we joined in, chanting away seconds with the televised throng; distanced by thousands of miles and nearly an hour of time.

It was several minutes into the New Year, poppers popped and champagne drunk, that we noticed that the ball hadn’t agreed with either of the disagreeing watches, both meticulously set to atomic time.

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