The Stutter in the Clock’s Second Hand

[Image: “It’s time to stop, the night said to me,” by Brandon Barr. One of many photos in The 24 Hour Project, a worldwide collaboration of 65 photographers documenting every hour of the day…  in over 35 cities. Barr’s photo of a street corner in Atlanta was snapped at 11:03p.m.]

From whiskey river:

We Have Time

We have time for everything
Sleep, run back and forth,
regret we made an error and err again
judge others and absolve ourselves,
we have time to read and write,
edit what we wrote, regret what we wrote,
we have time to make projects and never follow through
we have time to dwell in illusions and stir through
their ashes much later.

We have time for ambitions and diseases,
to blame destiny and details,
we have time to look at the clouds, at the ads, or some random accident, we have time
to chase away our questions, postpone our answers, we have time
to crush a dream and reinvent it, we have time to make friends,
to lose them, we have time to take lessons and forget them
soon after, we have time to receive gifts and not understand them. We have time for everything.

No time, though, for a little tenderness.
When we’re about to do that, too, we die.

(Octavian Paler)


It seems that most of us could benefit from a brush with a near-fatal disaster to help us recognize the important things that we are too defeated or embittered to recognize from day to day.

(Alain de Botton [source])

Not from whiskey river (excerpt):

There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

(T.S. Eliot [source])


Affliction is a marvel of divine technique. It is a simple and ingenious device which introduces into the soul of a finite creature the immensity of force, blind, brutal, and cold. The infinite distance separating God from the creature is entirely concentrated into one point to pierce the soul in its center…

In this marvelous dimension, the soul, without leaving the place and the instant where the body to which it is united is situated, can cross the totality of space and time and come into the very presence of God.

(Simone Weil [source])


Everyone knew something had happened — everyone, everywhere, at the same instant.

Many said they heard a click, as from a door latch’s simple opening, and some said no: it was a faint brief creak, as of someone sitting in an old chair in the next room. The deaf and the sleeping said sorry, they couldn’t agree, they’d heard nothing at all, but they knew something had happened nonetheless. Many said there had been a tiny tremor of floor or earth, and a handful of alarmists reported a sudden racing of their hearts. A good number turned, a second later, to their spouses or partners, their co-workers or cellmates or classmates, people sharing the same bus seat or park bench or pew, raised their eyebrows, and said — in the language of their choice — What was that? You might have been in the grip of a deep dreaming sleep, oblivious to the shouting of the neighbors next door, or you might have been one of those neighbors, interrupted between words; you might have just plunged a shovel into the earth to dig a grave, or your fingertips into the earth to plant a seed; you might have been breaking into the company safe, or you might have been raising the gun to prevent someone else from doing so, or you might be entering your office in the county courthouse where you would soon hear the case of the debt-ridden worker, his arm still in a sling, caught in the act; you might, that moment, have tapped a comma on a keyboard, or you might have been someone who would read that comma in a day’s time; you might have just emerged, gasping, from the birth canal, or you might be breathing your last, surprised to experience anything at all unfamiliar. It made no difference. You knew it had happened, too.

A sudden flicker, an instant’s discontinuity, the tiniest lurch in awareness, a fold, a ripple, a needle jumping into or out of a groove, a tap, a tickle, whisper, whiff, tang: something had happened, and something left its imprint in the consciousness of everyone on the planet, everyone breathing at that split-second. The effect was immediate and transient, and yet rippled out through history, for thousands of millennia afterwards.

No one knew who had first suggested the term (there were many claimants). But everyone came to call the experience by the same name. They called it The Blink.


The 1940 song “Five O’Clock Whistle” seems at first to be about exactly what the title promises. But then you listen to the whole thing, and you suddenly realize: the only important split-second in the little story occurs some time after 2:30a.m….

Here’s Duke Ellington’s take on it, with a sly, swinging vocal by Ivie Anderson:

[Below, click Play button to begin Five O’Clock Whistle. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 3:19 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


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  1. Loved the music, of course! And liked the “We Have Time” as well, since it seems, well–“timely” for me anyway. Do you know the song, “Try a Little Tenderness?” I have the Frank Sinatra version on my iTunes. The weepy violin is rather sappy, and really the lyrics are too, I guess. But it’s a nice little, sad little, tune, too. Just right post for this rainy day.

    • The versions of “Try a Little Tenderness” I’m most familiar with (although I know Sinatra’s, too) are soulful, hard-sounding numbers. Came close to using one of those as the music here — that “no time for a little tenderness” line in the Paler quotation seemed practically to demand it — but, well, except for dumb jokes I try to avoid anything that feels obvious. :)

      Sorry to hear the weather was rainy, but glad the Music Break post the other day, and this one, seem to have helped!

  2. The world seems to hiccup … and I’m not sure what was introduced into my soul but time did take on a different feeling. Thanks for this.

    • If anybody knows the dislocation that a single split-second can introduce into a soul, it’s you. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, I should’ve quoted from any of your blog posts from The Period in your life!

  3. Did you post an excerpt from the ‘Blink’ story before? I seem to remember something about a mass panic?

    Nice to see Prufrock turning up here at last, long a favourite of mine.

    I hadn’t heard the song before, but it does seem like one of the great unlikely excuses – although perhaps quite true. I was reminded of a Gary Larson cartoon in which a male bear is returning to his cave dazed and bedraggled, a hypodermic dart still hanging from his rump, and a radio beacon strapped to his back. His angry spouse doesn’t buy the story: “You expect me to believe THAT?”

    • Hmm. No, I don’t think I’ve posted anything from “The Blink.” (Although now you’ve gone and made me paranoid… The thought of repeating myself, especially without knowing it, gives me the squirms.) You may be thinking of a thing from a couple of years ago, called “Gas Day,” which I started for one of those Write-Your-*ss-Off exercises. I posted the first-draft version of that story’s opening here.

      You have a more finely-tuned inner catalogue of “Far Side” cartoons than perhaps even Mr. Larson himself. I don’t remember that particular one, but it’s certainly got the right feel to it (and made me laugh).

      Completely off-topic, but maybe of interest to you as a reCaptcha-and-language connoisseur: I’ve noticed that reCaptcha has on occasion thrown up — as the “real word” of a word pair — a word containing one of those so-called long or medial s characters, in contexts where either will work (like “fail” or “sail”). I don’t know what I did the first few times that happened (probably requested a different word pair), but on the last couple of offerings I replaced one with an f and one with an s (since this keyboard stubbornly refuses to let me type a true long s). reCaptcha accepted both.

      • Ah yes, the ‘Gas Day’ story, that was it. It wasn’t so very long ago, was it?

        I have a particular affinity for Gary Larson. I must have spent many dozens of hours reading collections of his cartoons, and have probably more than a hundred lodged vividly in my memory. I’ve even tried to draw a few cartoons of my own in emulation of his distinctive world view.

        The animated version of the ‘Far Side’ was surprisingly good. It began with a series of vignettes of passengers on an airliner, all of whom were various kinds of insect. Then it cut to an exterior shot – just as the entire plane splatted on the windscreen of a car. Set the tone perfectly for the darkness that was to follow. The sequence in the middle of a wolf watching his home movies almost brings a tear to the eye.

        I haven’t seen any Shakespearian effef on ReCaptch, but it has been getting very cranky with me lately – rejecting several of my decipherings as ‘wrong’! I’ve got one here that could be either a ‘u’ or a ‘v’. I may have to flip a coin.

  4. My first association with that song is always the opening sequence of Dr Strangelove – the B-52s ‘mating’ with their refuelling planes. I can’t remember whose version that is. Otis Redding’s is one of the most famous; it might be his.

    • I was talking about ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ there, of course. I had meant to insert this in reply to Cynth’s comment at the top, but goofed somehow.

      • Turns out that there’s a term for this approach to music in a film’s soundtrack: anempathetic sound.

        (At the other extreme, think of “Singin’ in the Rain” and Clockwork Orange.)

        IMDB says that “Try a Little Tenderness” in Strangelove was “performed” by Laurie Johnson, “English film and television composer, and bandleader” (says Wikipedia) — seems unlikely, but that’s what it says. I’d forgotten that it was in fact the film’s soundtrack during the opening credits:

  5. Oh, my, Froog, I had forgotten that sequence from the movie! I love that movie. It’s just so great in so many ways…music included. Thanks for the chuckle in reminding me.

  6. I don’t care what they say about TS Eliot, I like that poem.

    As for Alain de Botton, you should know what I’m going to say. TED Talk!! He’s got one.

    I also loved your excerpt. I was reading right along, enjoying the rhythm and the captured moments, and I don’t mean anything except that I am very silly when at the end I had to shout, “Don’t blink!”

    We Whovians are just impossible sometimes.

    • I wrote (but didn’t finish) this much of “The Blink” the day after I dreamed of the situation. I let the story sit for a while, and forgot about it.

      Scroll the calendar forward a couple of years. With access, finally, to BBC TV, I’ve begun watching re-runs of the rebooted Dr. Who… Oh, the agony. Not only did that “Don’t blink!” phrase jump out of the screen and slap me in the face, but the story behind “The Blink” itself very much resembled that one epic Dr. Who story arc in which all these planets from around the universe had been somehow instantly relocated to the same neighborhood…


      Had a similar response just last night to a throwaway line in a Pratchett book which I’m reading, regarding a story-maybe-book I’ve been working on recently. I’m trying to tamp down the frustration and disappointment at learning (again) that sometimes wildly different people generate the same plot points, independently… and that someone naturally will tend to be there first. It helps that Pratchett’s reference to it was just a one-liner — a joke, in fact.

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