Consumerism and attachment
My dad used to restore antique clocks and guns. Not because he was concerned with time or shooting, but because he was fascinated by clever machinery. Our house always had various pendulum clocks running and his workbench usually had a new project taken apart with the elaborate movement submerged in the buzzing ultrasonic cleaner. He’d start with some old neglected timepiece and by the time it was done, the wood looked deep and rich, the face was restored, the movement worked perfectly and – well worth opening the back of the clock to see – was a gleaming tribute to the Victorian habit of decorating even hidden mechanisms.
One of his favorites was a majestic Regulator clock, which stood six feet tall and had glass sides so you could watch it work. Its pendulum, designed to stay the same length even as room temperature changed, tocked off the seconds with stupendous regularity. It had electrical contacts inside that once delivered a pulse to client clocks in classrooms of a wealthy school boasting advanced, Edisonian technology. Once upon a time it was the very latest thing.
Alas in a lonely time of depression, he sold all his clocks, and died not long after. It is probably just as well that he sold them, because I could not properly care for them. But some vestige of his fascination lives on in me. I wear a self-winding watch with a transparent back. Sometimes, through a magnifying glass, I marvel at its jeweled precision; how it stores the energy of wrist movement to perform its work. The escapement wheel works on exactly the same principle as a pendulum, but in any orientation; its invention was a major advance in navigation.
Today I needed a clock to put in view of my treadmill. I bought this example for four dollars at Target. It is made of plastic and has a quartz movement. I won’t be winding it once a week; it runs for a year on an AA battery. Its “pendulum” is a quartz crystal, oscillating 32,768 times as many per second as that old Regulator clock.
It’s a good clean design, instantly readable. My experience with clocks like this one is that it will last about ten years, which works out to $1.10 per year including replacement AA batteries. If I move, I probably wouldn’t even bother packing it. When it quits working, I won’t take it to a “clock shop” to be repaired; I’ll toss it in the garbage and get another one. It’s a fine clock, yet unworthy of any attachment.
Attachment, said the Buddha, causes suffering and no doubt that’s true. We are after all, ephemeral, and even attachment to life makes us fearful of death. But as attachment causes suffering there is also pleasure in it. Using a thing that is finely designed and crafted is an abstraction of fellowship with humans who bring that very human capability to bear. I feel a little relief for almost every possession of which I unburden myself. But paradox is life too, and there is so much beauty in the work of craftsmen. Utility isn’t everything. Perhaps it is enough that I know such clocks once existed.