Babysitting a clock
We have an old tall case clock in our living room. It’s really old, as in two centuries old, and it’s really tall, as in eight feet tall.
This weight-driven pendulum clock has two outstanding characteristics. First, its loud chime. Actually, chime is a misnomer. Gong is a better description. You know the six-inch red metal bowls that hang on the wall in a school where there’s an older fire alarm system? Well, imagine striking one of those bowls with a metal mallet multiple times every hour, and you have our clock. If we opened the windows, neighbors would think a firetruck was on the way.
Then, too, there is a demanding attitude to this clock of ours. It’s finicky in the extreme. Difficult to please. Its fondness for mood and behavior changes in sudden and unannounced ways would require therapy if it were human. When the clock’s time-keeping loses accuracy, we get on the floor and adjust the cardboard shims that affect its tilt ever so slightly. If we turn the winding keys in the crank hole with the wrong force, the baby gets all upset. We phone the clock man, who shows up with a black bag that looks like a country physician making a house call.
Media theorists like Lewis Mumford and Neil Postman argue that the invention of the mechanical clock in the 14th century, with its mathematically measured sequences, has (in a way) superseded nature. It’s caused us to stop listening to our senses, lose reverence for the sun and seasons, and organize our lives around obeying the clock. They even wonder if God might be the big loser in all of this, as we think of our brains operating “like clockwork.”
I’d challenge that notion that the inexorable ticking of the clock has somehow weakened God’s supremacy or impoverished our view of the world. On the contrary, I’m awed by its workings. That a clockmaker’s genius could design a mechanical device so elaborate. Wow! The six-pound weights are still functioning on very old cables after all these years. I’m amazed at how much this antique time piece requires of owners. I joke about this clock requiring more care and nurture than our now deceased soft-coated wheaten terrier once did. We kid about having to plan vacations around the every-seven-day-winding of the clock. If it stops from weights dropping to the floor, we can count on weeks of adjustment and TLC to get it back on track.
We used to ring in the New Year by standing on the front porch with our kids and banging pots and pans. This year, with the kids long gone, I think I’ll just sit in the living room and listen to the clock ring at the midnight hour. The bell may well strike some number other than 12. But that unpredictably is part of the laughter that keeps us in touch with God.
6 Comments on “Babysitting a clock”
When I was growing up, we had a brass gong in the dining room that my missionary great grandparents had brought back from China. It was fun to “bong the gong” for dinner. We still have the one my parents gave us after we were married (probably from Chinatown in San Francisco), and it still has the dent from the first time we bonged it on New Year’s Eve!
Our grandfather clock runs on electricity. It gongs on the quarter hour and I laugh when over night guests say it kept them awake!
Thank you for the lighthearted approach to the rituals of the New Year. We, too, have a clock that wants to become a member of our family. It is fairly new…..a gift from Dick for our 60th wedding anniversary. After various family members had tried to get it running, a trip to a clock doctor in Eldridge and some rather heated suggestions as to what to DO with the clock, Dick sent the workings back to the manufacturer and about a month later the new ones arrived. Now the clock is fairly close to chiming on the hour but that is only a wish, not a promise. Sometimes it chimes softly and sometimes it causes us to fly out of our chairs fearing that the world is coming to an end. The dog is totally traumatized by it. Long live the CLOCK!
Your essay brings to mind New Year’s Eve 1993. While living in Japan, a friend took me to a local Buddhist temple where I was allowed to ring the gong, one of the 108 strikes, with baby Daniel in a front pack. I’m not sure which desire I was striking out, but I felt joy, among the people and Scout troops serving hot beverages on a cold night.
“Joya no kane
Every year at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, Buddhist temples all over Japan ring their bonsho (temple bells) an even 108 times, an event known as joya no kane. This number represents the number of human desires, which according to the Buddhist faith lead to pain and suffering. Joya no kane is a ritual meant to drive away these negative emotions from the past year.”
We too have a very old ( not quite as old as 200 yrs. maybe 100 yrs old) Guess all including us get more unpredictable with age! Winding the weight, rather than helping to keep it running, causes it to want more attention, stopping after a half hour with the pendulum wanting another start. Please God give us patience!
Thanks for sharing. I too remember banging pots & pans on the front steps and the big red bell in the halls at school. If I ever get the chance, I would like to take a ball peen hammer to it!