What time is it in Antarctica?

Photo of a penguinI wish I knew more about physics. At the very least, I would like to understand something about the time-space continuum. Perhaps that would help explain how a single summer day in childhood can go on forever, but as one gets older, whole years seem to disappear between breakfast and dinner; decades pass between dinner and bedtime. When I think about time, I am reminded of my in-laws, who, when asked the time, would always respond, “by the clock?” The usual answer in their family was “yes, by the clock,” at which point further clarification would be required to determine which clock—the kitchen clock, which always ran ten minutes fast, or the clock in the den, which was usually five minutes slow, or some other clock in the house? I don’t remember people consulting their watches in these instances, but I suppose that was possible. Occasionally, people would respond, “no, not by the clock,” which meant the other person would do the math for you and give you the actual time. Of course, that assumed that the clock had not gained or lost additional minutes since the last time anyone checked. This was in the days before cellphones and computers and microwaves and every other kind of household gadget had clocks synced to satellites, so one could never be completely sure that the time you were given was accurate, whether “by the clock” or not. I always wondered why my in-laws didn’t just set all the clocks to the same time, rather than go through this complicated ritual. I didn’t realize then how slippery time was and how difficult to keep track of, with or without clocks.

I have since noticed that this ritual may not be as uncommon as I at first thought. Other people, including myself, go through a similar routine when they change time zones while travelling or when they “spring forward” in March or “fall back” in October. Some people, like my stepfather, will reset their clocks immediately upon crossing into a new time zone and seem to have no trouble with the concept of “gaining” or “losing” an hour. They never concern themselves with what time it “used to be.” They live completely in the present, and they always tell time “by the clock.” Other people seem to have trouble letting go of the “old time” and may refuse to change their watches when going on short trips or crossing only one time zone. Even those who do change their clocks and watches to the “new time” may for a while feel the need to calculate what time it is in the place they recently left or what time it “used to be” before someone decided we should save daylight. Although I don’t wear a watch (or perhaps because of that), I tend to obsess a bit about different time zones and am continually doing the math in my head, adding an hour when I think about my mother or my brother, subtracting an hour when I think about my grandchildren, subtracting two hours when I think about my daughter-in-law, trying to picture what each of my loved ones is doing at that time in that place. I also love checking the World Sunlight Map to see which places in the world are just waking up and which ones are shrouded in darkness. And yet it worries me not at all if the clocks in my house are a few minutes fast or slow, or if they are all set to different times.

This summer I became painfully aware of the tricks that time plays and of how time can contract and expand simultaneously. In July, while my younger son, Isaac, was on his honeymoon in Peru, my older son, Matt, was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan with the Fourth Infantry. I wanted the days to go slowly so Matt would not have to leave; and I wanted the same days to go quickly so Isaac would return home soon. Now, three months later, Isaac is at McMurdo Station in Antarctica with a team of scientists, while Matt is at a checkpoint in Kandahar province, with a platoon of soldiers and their Afghan counterparts. I am still in “central time,” continually calculating what hour it is where they are. When it is noon today in Missouri “by the clock,” it is 9:30 tonight in Kandahar and 6:00 tomorrow morning at McMurdo, where it is spring and the wind chill is 4 degrees F today. All of this  completely boggles my mind. On those days when I am lucky enough to  be able to chat online with Matt or receive a phone call from Isaac, I can’t help but marvel at how my sons are able to talk to me “from the future.”

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