Today, a story about a strange clock and a
cesspool. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
"Here's a story for the
radio," says my wife, handing me a page she's torn
from the latest Forbes magazine. The
page has six miscellaneous items on it, and I'm
puzzled. "Here," she says, "the one about the clock
and the one about the sewer."
"I don't see a story," I complain. "No, but you
should be able to make one up." She does that: When
she has something important to say, she talks in
code. I'd better read more carefully.
First, the clock: The Sharper Image Catalog is
offering a Personal Life Clock. It counts down
what's left of your statistical average lifetime.
That comes to 683,280 hours. The clock diplays the
remainder to the nearest minutes and seconds.
Meanwhile, inspirational messages pop up to spur
you on. The thing reminds me of a Colonial American
hymn I once heard:
Savor every minute, the ad says.
... this subtle antiprocrastination tool will help
you maximize the quality of all your hours. I
shudder and move on to the item about a sewer.
Thy precious time misspent, Redeem,
Each present day thy last esteem.
It's a quote from Vaclav Havel, the Czech author
who became Czechoslovakia's president. He tells
about the night he fell into a sewer. My attempt
to swim in this fundamental mud, this strange
vegetation, was vain, he remembers. He panicked
as he sank deeper. Rescuers couldn't reach him.
I could barely keep my nose above the dreadful
effluvium, he says. Someone finally managed to
lower a ladder and get him out. He tells how
hope emerged from hopelessness, from
So, on the one hand, we have technology gone mad --
a clockwork goad reminding us how many hours we
have to live. On the other hand we have a president
drowning in excrement.
The clock says: Organize every moment until, at the
age of 78, you die on schedule. But you do not die
on schedule. Instead, you lose your footing one
night and face death in a cesspool. Only then do
you learn what hope really is.
The clock tells us we live life to the fullest by
leaving no minute unused. Havel rewrites that
unwholesome message. He says,
In the face of ... absurdity, life is too
precious to permit its devaluation by living ...
without meaning, without love, and finally, without
That clock leaves no room for absurdity. There's no
place for lurking cesspools in those tidy 683,280
hours -- and, of course, no hope of surviving
anything. Where are you supposed to pause and laugh
at the joke that life is? Maybe that's what my wife
found too important to say explicitly when she
found me working -- husbanding every minute -- in
this long vacation weekend.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds