How are you feeling with just over a week of Eastern Standard Time under our belts? Are you still waking up an hour “early?” Having an extra cup of coffee in the middle of the afternoon? Do the circles under your eyes remind you, in an unflattering way, of a grumpy raccoon?
Here at home when the time “changes” in the spring, we leave a clock or two alone in a largely futile, slightly confusing but grimly satisfying protest against “government time. Someone usually resurrects the old Ian Anderson song, “Living in the Past.”
Then on that first Monday in November, someone announces they are refusing to set their clocks back in order to live one hour in the future. We greet you, people of the past. Your ways are quaint.
We go through these motions every year in what has become a kind of ritual, and like many rituals, it accomplishes little of value. The whole thing reminds me of….a tomato plant I once knew. Bet you didn’t see that one coming.
Once upon a time I worked for a corporation, and like many human organizations, it had its own rituals. The company was housed in an old building. The building had grown up with the company, and wings had been added over time as the business expanded and room was needed for more employees.
The building had plumbing issues. No one alive knew exactly how the pipes were connected underground or where the storm water drained to. Sometimes when there was a heavy downpour, water would go places water shouldn’t go, like inside the lower offices and the lobby where customers waited. I remember one such occasion, as I trudged into work on a Monday after a time change thinking, “I know I’m not awake yet, but carpet is not supposed to splash.”
There was a lot of head scratching over the problem. Old blueprints were dusted off. Flashlights were shined into holes, followed by a plumber’s snake or two. The problem persisted, as did the smell of dank, moldy carpet.
Plumbing is a good metaphor for the type of things that indicate the overall health of a company (or a government). In a healthy situation, storm water goes where it’s supposed to go, and when a pipe breaks or stops up, you know how to fix it because you know how all your pipes are connected.
One rainy day our drainage mysteries got a lot more personal when raw sewage somehow combined with storm water and they started traveling together like a Dodge Ram pulling an Airstream trailer. If there’s anything less motivating than splashy carpet, it’s splashy carpet with sewage, and it’s a serious health hazard.
Yet our pipes remained blocked and our migrating bacteria, propelled by foot traffic, started learning to fly after the carpet dried. When a company’s (or a government’s) metaphorical pipes are stopped up, it can take a long time for actions to flow where they are needed. Eventually someone shocked a decision maker into action with an anonymously circulated Department of Health publication on airborne bacteria from wastewater. Our carpet was ripped up and a backhoe tore into the ground to find out just what needed to be done to our pipes.
It turned out that the offending sewer line passed right under the sidewalk leading to the customer lobby of our department. The sidewalk was torn up and pipes were replaced. There was mud everywhere, and sewage. The lobby was closed, and we all stepped very carefully coming into the office.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and our company, though it had a new sewer line, still had a metaphorical blockage. The sidewalk was still in pieces. The mud had dried, for the moment. Alongside the old sidewalk there appeared a familiar looking plant.
It’s a testament to the vitality of the life force that the seed of a cherry tomato could travel from a farm in Florida to a grocery store in North Georgia and survive the indignities of the checkout line, then resist the gnashing of teeth and the assault of stomach acid, negotiate some 29 feet of intestines and an unknown length of sewer pipe to be unearthed by a backhoe and spring to life in the red clay of the southern Appalachians.
That tomato didn’t just sprout. It thrived. In a week it was a foot high, then two feet. Someone chopped it down (as we often do to deal with the appearance of a problem) but it didn’t die. It grew back even faster. When the tomato was approaching three feet in height, someone, anonymously of course, staked it to a pole. Four feet high and it started to bear fruit. Five feet high and you couldn’t miss it, a lush, verdant specimen covered in beautiful but somehow unappetizing tomatoes, standing in silent accusation, a testimony to the incredible inertia of large human organizations.
After several months the sidewalk was repaired and the unfortunate tomato plant was cut down in the prime of its life. I don’t think anyone was standing in line to sample its fruit. So, what does our well traveled tomato have to do with Eastern Standard Time? Hang in there. You would have gotten it already if you weren’t so sleepy.
Our system of government has grown as our country has expanded. New “wings” were added to house more employees needed to monitor us and tell us what to do. No one alive knows how all the pipes are connected, or where the waste water goes, other than downhill. Standing like an over-fertilized tomato plant in not so silent accusation of our government’s ability to respond to our needs , is our twice yearly ritual of “changing” the time.
That ritual is a problem. Science has debunked just about all of the alleged benefits of the practice. Changing the time disrupts sleep patterns, decreases productivity and for many people, it becomes a health hazard. The problem grows every year, and it’s a problem that bears fruit: The incidence of accidents and mistakes spike each time we alter our observance of time.
Our dislike of the practice is one of the few things we all agree on, and it is an issue that no one has managed to twist into a political advantage. Maybe that’s why Congress, with its phenomenal cosmic power to tell us what time it is, independent of the movement of the planet around the sun and the evidence of our own bodies, seems incapable of acting for our mutual benefit.
It’s time for a change, and not just in the way we observe the passage of time.