“The white man’s clock” is a phrase that is probably not so popular anymore, but I read it many times in my exploration of Native American literature from the 1970s through the present. It resonates with me, even though I am white, because when you read the literature of many cultures, you begin to critically evaluate your own from the point of view of an outsider. Many people from Native cultures were perplexed by the extent to which European-American culture relied on precise scheduling.
I remembered the phrase “tyranny of the white man’s clock” and couldn’t remember from where, so I Googled it and discovered this wonderful essay about timekeeping in modern culture by George Woodock, first published in 1944, titled The Tyranny of the Clock http://www.spunk.org/texts/writers/woodcock/sp001734.html. It has only grown more relevant with age.
Long before I was hit and acquired my physical issues, I hated having my life dictated by the clock. I was neurologically hypersensitive before I was hit, and that only got worse after my head injury. Conventional alarm clocks were always a huge problem for me because my reflexive response to being startled is outrage. A sudden loud noise startling me awake guaranteed that I began the day angry and resentful. That’s no way to live.
In 2003, I started working in downtown Seattle and discovered the nearby Sharper Image store, which had the most wondrous things, including a graduated light alarm clock. Thirty minutes before the alarm’s set time, the clock begins lightening the room to simulate sunrise. By the time the gentle ascending alarm tone sounds, your brain knows it’s coming. This changed my life.
Still, I remember my life working full-time as an exhausting blur of sleep deprivation. That arbitrary wake-up time caused me to develop terrible habits. Knowing that I would begin the next day by selling my daylight to The Man, I clung to my own time, reluctant to end the day. I would stress about waking up early and compromise the sleep I did get. If my upstairs neighbors were making noise, I laid awake stewing in anger even after I banged on the ceiling to shut them up. I resisted any weekend activities that required getting up early because that was my one chance in the week to sleep in. And woe to any neighbor who interfered with my sleeping in. Many a Sunday-morning fishing trip ended with a fine notice from the condo manager.
At work, I suffered intense drowsiness every day after lunch. I usually drank 3 cups of coffee during a typical afternoon to stay awake, often intensifying the effect of the caffeine with sugar from the readily available candy in my workplace. I was the one who brewed a fresh pot at 3:30 PM, to the raised eyebrows of management (who then surreptitiously finished the pot).
One day a coworker of mine mentioned her perpetual sleep deprivation and a group quickly gathered as everyone eagerly chimed in with their complaints. I had thought I was a lone whiny woman-child in a sea of responsible adults, but lots of people felt the same way.
A year before I got hit, I lost my job. The first sign that this might not be the end of the world was when I woke up the next morning unaided by any device, with the knowledge that I didn’t have to tear myself out of bed and kick into instant high gear. I could have breakfast in my robe and enjoy my cats. Over the next few months, I started to feel actively healthy as my body adapted to a natural schedule of going to bed when I was tired and waking up when I was done sleeping. Left to my own devices, I rose with the sun. I discovered my inner morning person!
I also quit drinking coffee in the afternoon. Two cups in the morning were plenty. If I felt sleepy, I just took a short nap. I got part-time contract work that paid almost as well as my old job. I was cycling at least 20 miles a day. This was the best I’d ever felt physically.
Then I got hit and everything changed. I was grateful to have the contract work to return to, even though I had to go back to it months before I was ready. A year after my rehab, my project moved to the construction phase and I had to be on site at sunrise. I wasn’t able to do this more than 3 days in a row, and even then it took days to recover, so I had to get an alternate monitor to sub for me 2 days a week. My pain was intense and after a few weeks, I had to turn this high-paying work over to a colleague.
I’m not able to work an on-site, scheduled job because my condition is too variable from day to day. I’ve tried to negotiate terms with potential employers where I would always be in the office between 11 AM and 3 PM, and work 24 to 30 hours a week, filling in the difference as my body is able. With the kind of work I do, there is no reason I couldn’t have designated hours to be available to clients and work offline or from home the rest of the time. This is true of most office jobs. Flexing people’s hours would ease traffic congestion. A lot of daytime workers could ride bicycles to work in full daylight in lighter traffic. The only downside is it would lessen employers’ control over their people. That’s probably why it isn’t widely done.
There are many jobs where adhering to timed shifts is necessary. I used to manage a store and my assistant manager was always at least 5 minutes late, meaning I had to stay until she arrived, because someone had to watch the store. Lives can depend on nurses and other shift workers. But every job schedule should be evaluated for necessity.
People are healthier when they can work and live according to their own body rhythms. If it’s feasible in their jobs, they should be allowed to tailor their schedules. The Millennial generation is all over this idea and I hear many older people scoffing at it. For people with invisible disabilities, it can be a game changer. I know it has been for me.