On Time: This one goes to 11

Today, we celebrate 11/11/11. This feels significant.

The numbers are alliterative, a palindrome, binary.

This is the 11th day of the 11th month of the 11th year of this millennium. Or perhaps it’s the 12th year of the millennium. It depends on how you count.

We call this year 2011, because 2011 years ago was Anno Domini, the year of our lord, when Jesus Christ was born in the little town of Bethlehem.

Except he was not born that year, but a few years before. Yet at one point, somebody thought 2011 years ago was the correct year, and we haven’t gone back to correct that, because if we did, we wouldn’t be celebrating 11/11/11 today.

And of course to many people in this world, the year of the birth of Jesus Christ is not all that significant to their belief system, or perhaps not significant at all. And yet, somehow, quite a number of people around the world use that year as the starting point of how we count time.

We count that by measuring the number of times the earth has rotated around the sun. If we were living on Mars, we would not be celebrating 11/11/11 today, because the length of our year would be far different.

While this is the 11th month of the year, what does that really mean? A month is derived from the length of time it takes for the shadow of the earth to cover the moon, then wane and then wax. If the moon was a bit closer, or a bit farther away, not only would the tides change, but we would not be celebrating 11/11/11 today.

And really, it goes beyond that. While a month is based upon the moon, the number of times the moon waxes and wanes does not neatly match up with the length of time the earth rotates around the sun. So we assign a different number of days to each month, so that it all adds up neatly, and thus months no longer have much of a real connection to the moon. We assign 28 days to February. If December had 28 days instead, we would not be celebrating 11/11/11 today.

As for the 11th day, we measure days by the length of time it takes for the earth to rotate on its axis. I think you can imagine what I’ll say next: if that rotation took a shorter amount of time or a longer amount of time, we would not be celebrating 11/11/11 today.

We chop that rotation into 24 segments of 60 minutes each, and each of those minutes into 60 seconds. Typically, we like neat numbers based around 10, because we have five fingers on each hand. But the Babylonians liked the number 60. And so, we ascribe special significance to the 11th second of the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the 11th year. If we weren’t using Babylonian numerology to divide up time, we wouldn’t be celebrating 11s at this exact moment.

People around the world celebrate these moments at different times each day, with that determined based around time zones. Time zones created because train stations needed to coordinate when trains would arrive when traveling across the country, even though the sun sets at different times within each time zone.

We celebrate 11:11:11 on 11/11/11 in the a.m. and the p.m., dividing the day in half.

We break up time, measure it precisely, and assign significance to different aspects of the time, based on various qualities of the world around us or oddities of history.

I thought about going to see the movie In Time today. Interesting concept. People work to get paid in time in order to live longer. In fact, they spend time by giving it to somebody else in order to receive time in exchange.

It’s not really science fiction, though. We all do this. Every day we go to work, we give our employers the most precious gift in the world, our time, our very limited time, in exchange for money, which we can trade for housing and food, or even medical care, which can extend our life. We can also exchange it for entertainment to help better enjoy that time or to make time flow faster or slower.

If time was purely an object that could be measured and segmented, that would not be possible. But time for us is more than just minutes and seconds, it is our memories of how we experienced that time. Some moments of time drag on forever, some seem gone in an instant.

There are certain moments, which are burned in our brain. There are some moments so significant that those dates will live in infamy. At least for a time. September 11. December 7. June 6. Even November 11, Veterans Day, Armistice Day, the day the Great War ended, although few remember that connection now.

Some moments are unforgettable, although we may not remember precisely how it attaches to time. For my generation, we all know where we were when the Challenger exploded. I remember that was 1985, but without Wikipedia, I could not tell you what month or day or time. I remember very vividly where I was when the Gulf War began. But again, the date escapes me.

All of us have important memories with friends and family, and yet we do not necessarily remember how that connects with a specific time. Others, we do. I’ll always remember March 26, the day I had my first date with my wife, and October 1, the day we were married. September 27 was the day I began working at my job. We remember days people were born. Sometimes we remember the days when people die.

I recently read the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. I remember where I was when I heard he had passed away. I found out on my iPhone, while standing in line at the Argentina booth at the Food and Wine Festival at Epcot in Disney World on October 5. Reading the biography of a person whose creative work I greatly admired was a reminder that our time on this earth is very precious.

 Steve Jobs accomplished many amazing things in his time, he truly put a dent in the universe. He, like all of us, had to make choices about how to spend his time, how to best put his talents to use. Thankfully, so very often he chose wisely and knew that subtraction is far often more important than addition, that what we choose not to do is often more important than what we choose to do with our time.

How we choose to use time is interesting. In many ways, wealth is an expression of being able to choose what to do with time. For people working three jobs to be able to put the roof over their heads and the heads of their children, time is difficult. Jobs have timecards, and when you arrive or leave is not your choice. That specific arbitrary division of time is so far more important for some than for those with enough money to spend time as they choose.

We say that you should spend your time wisely, and it easy to say that you should only give away time for things you truly care about. However, when jobs are scarce, that choice is not always there. For some people, for many people, for most people, you have to do what you have to do, even if it is not the way you want to spend your time.

The real American dream is the dream of having complete choice over how to spend time.

We work our whole lives in order to be able to retire and thus spend time however we like. Until of course, time creeps up and begins stealing away that choice with health problems or with the feelings of loss that come from losing those around us whose time has run out.

And yet, we all still have time over which we have control. When I get done working, sometimes I choose to spend time to watch a television show or play a game of Starcraft 2 rather than to read a good book, write, workout at the gym or any other number of good things that would probably make my life better. Spending time unwisely often feels pleasant, indulgent, in a way that spending time wisely sometimes does not.

We spend time with friends new and old, with family, parents and siblings, children and cousins, and we hopefully create memories to cherish as time goes by.

What is a good use of time? What is a bad use of time?

I would like to think that I use part of my time to make insanely great things that make others’ lives better. I can use my time to learn more, so I can make even better things down the road, to connect with others, who can teach me more or who can lend a hand at a future time.

Are those uses of time better or more important than the time I spend with those who I care deeply about? Is that time important solely so that I can trade it for money I can use to improve how I am able to spend time with those I care deeply about? Or is spending time on trying to create insanely great things good in and of itself?

There is a balancing point, as with all things of course. Using time unwisely on entertainment is often necessary to be able to have the energy to do insanely great things in order to improve the quality of time spent with those you care about.

Finding that balance point is the trick and challenge of life.

It was fun today to celebrate 11/11/11 at 11:11:11. The first time that came around today, I shouted, “This one goes to 11!” as I drove my car, en route to meeting a friend for sushi. The second time that moment came around, my wife and I each made a wish, while our dog cuddled on her lap, and our cat curled up on a chair.

This morning, I was going to spend time with my grandpa. When I got to his place, I found out he was in the hospital. I visited him there, and he’s recovering from an infection. Hopefully he will be fine. He hasn’t been quite the same since my grandma passed away, nearly a year ago.

Wow. It has almost been a year now. The pain and loss fades with time, but I still miss her. I miss my other grandma, who has been gone for 11 years now. I miss my wife’s grandpa, who passed away a couple months ago, and her grandma, who passed away a couple years ago.

Our time here is short. The way we divide up time may be arbitrary, but it has meaning, because we give it meaning. And thank goodness we do.

I don’t think there’s any one right way to use our time. We all make choices about how we do so, although some of us have more of an ability to make choices than others. Does thinking about those choices improve the choices we make? Maybe.

Maybe.