You start poking around to make dinner. You go to the fridge and pull out some fresh produce. At the sound of the vegetable drawer opening, your dog trots over and starts barking, reasoning that if it’s late afternoon and stuff is being taken out, a raw carrot, his favorite treat, cannot be far behind. Time elapsed: three seconds.
Entertaining as this Pavlovian routine may be, there are other reliable ways to tell that three seconds have passed. Try this, for example: allow your sons to commandeer the remote control, wait for an ad, and see how long you can go before shrieking at them to press the Mute button.
Or try this: While on hold to talk to a tech support person, you have heroically started the laundry, put the dishes away, cut an onion into small chunks and begun frying it up in olive oil, all with an awkwardly-shaped portable phone jammed under your chin. You can no longer feel the side of your head and are thinking of googling “permanent nerve damage” when you suddenly get through, resolve your problem, hang up, and start massaging your neck. Count to three, and you will magically remember that one other technical question you meant to ask.
For a longer span, say, ten seconds, take your mother to her appointment with Dr. X. Bring your sister along, though you and she are both on the edge of caretaking burnout and have been known to succumb to occasional fits of inappropriate giggling. Avoid eye contact with your sister as the automatically-inflating blood pressure cuff starts. When your mom squeals indignantly, “Oooh! That’s too tight!” you will know that ten seconds have elapsed. Bite the inside of your cheek.
Alternatively, wait for Dr. X with your mother and sister in the cramped examination room and scribble down some notes: Mom is becoming alarmingly disoriented and often doesn’t know where she is or who she’s talking to, and has bouts of extreme unpleasantness. When the doctor comes in, start the stopwatch. On cue, your mom will chirp, “How are you, Dr. X? Nice new office,” about Dr. X’s nice new office.
Another way to tell that ten seconds have passed is to go on Facebook Chat and let son #2 know that you’re not up to driving an hour each way in the rain to hear his rock band perform at 10 p.m. this evening at a kegger. We have plenty of kegs at home, you type jovially. Break a leg, sweetie. Ten ticks of the second hand, and—news of Mom and Dad’s prospective absence having gotten around—son #1 calls and asks to borrow the car to drive to son #2’s gig. See? Electronic communication really does happen at the speed of light.
But what if you want to be able to mark off ten minutes? Try this. You and your husband are out to dinner with another couple, finishing up your main courses. The woman is exactly your age, and asks you about hot flashes. “I’ve never had one,” you brag, never having had one. Soon the coffee arrives. Why am I wearing all these layers of wool? you suddenly think, hoping you’re not blushing. You take off your scarf, then your outer sweater, to no avail. You start gulping ice water. You excuse yourself to go outside for a little air.
In a world of unpredictability, isn’t it reassuring to know that some things still happen like clockwork?
Published in the Piedmont Post, February 3, 2010