Chronographs, 10-speeds, and other excesses

My first chronograph came from a pawn shop at age 18. It had heavy gold plating, several dials and looked impressive on my wrist. A real chronograph. Being 18, I didn’t realize its many capabilities. To me, it was an object of conversation among friends when we escaped from our teenage responsibilities and visited the local drag stip to watch the races. Pushing its buttons caused the second hand to start or stop, and seemed to function differently, depending on the sequence of buttons pushed. Not having a user manual, and being decades ahead of the internet, I didn’t understand—or care—about such details. It was a watch that gave me immense pride, despite my not knowing its features, and it stopped working the day I first kissed my future bride. Repairing the watch would have cost more than a month’s salary, so it lay in a drawer for years before being finally discarded. There was a lesson there, buying above my ability to maintain.

Years passed. My choice of watches were practical, inexpensive, reliable devices. The chronograph memories were deeply hidden and rarely revisited. But a future surprise awaited me. Our 50th anniversary loomed, and my dear bride gave me a new chronograph watch as a gift. Such happiness in my face on seeing it. From Germany, no computer chips, real gearworks—and a user manual. Lewis Carrol’s words, “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”, filled my thoughts. I was one happy guy.

The following week found me regularly timing whatever happened. No, you don’t want to know. Too trivial to write about, but my many timings expanded my watch knowledge. I mastered use of the tachymeter and the telemeter (two amazingly simple mathematical jewels), features of which I had never known. And I finally mastered the buttons’ many features.

Years passed. My daily choice of a watch to wear now infrequently is the chronograph. The watch that does not show date or day of week or even numbers is my regular choice. Simple. Does what it needs to do. The chronograph, though rarely worn, is still revered and I find myself enjoying the tactile experience of just holding it and admiring its design. It remains my favorite, though I wear it less.

Thinking about the chronograph brings back related memories of my recently-sold 10-speed bike. A beauty it was, a classic Panasonic Tourist. Black, pinstriped, fenders—a real beauty. Why a 10-speed? Because I liked its looks. A sexy bike and, with 10 speeds, I should have no trouble on hills or other road challenges. Each day gave me the joy of a ride, shifting gears, enjoying the wind in my face, and the silence of being on a bike. Over time, what I noticed was that I typically began my rides in 5th gear, shifting shortly thereafter to 10th gear. Either that, or starting in 3rd gear and shifting up to 8th. First gear? Useless to me. Second? Ditto. Ninth? Why bother.

Somewhere in this great land, there are people who need first gear, and maybe ninth, and conceivably all ten, but I am not among that minority of our population. Yes, I’m aware that 15-speed bikes roam the land and there is a tight niche of 27-speed bikers out there, as well. But my name isn’t there. Once upon a time, I had a 3-speed Raleigh, purchased used for $10 because the frame had a slight wrinkle in it. That was all I needed.

The chronograph and my 10-speed bike share similarities: they provide features most of us never use, yet they remain popular purchase items. Chronographs have become so popular that I now see “wannabee” watches in the stores: painted dials and imitation buttons. And how many chronograph owners can even pronounce tachymeter, anyway?

This demand for more than we use seems to be proliferating in our world, and causing us to shorten our attention span, not intentionally, but because we are letting too many interruptions in our thoughts. I will share that I have two phones: a simple phone and a smartphone. My preference is the simple phone. A call can be initiated by clicking two buttons. On the smartphone, I must click in the security code, then click the phone button, then click the favorites button, then scroll to the desired recipient, click that, then click the phone icon and the call is initiated. Besides the excess of clicks, the screen is impossible to read in direct sunlight. Yet people tease me when I use the simple phone because their comment is that it leaves me without email access or web access. That I don’t care to read and send email continually is a concept not grasped by these well-meaning people. Surely, what they’re doing should be what I’m also doing, or so they believe.

Do I use the smartphone? Sometimes, but it is just overkill most of the time, as I refuse to let my life be interrupted by phone, email, and text except when I so choose. Remember when we looked up information in the encyclopedia and wrote letters on typewriters? Am I a dinosaur, or are we losing our ability to pause and focus and enjoy the simpler moments in life? My current book read is Innumeracy, by J. Paulos. In the book, he broaches the question of whether civilization, as it becomes more complex, may become more unstable and eventually self-destruct. Does that sound like us? Does a cow moo? Technology is taking charge, and we, as a society, are happily relinquishing the reins of our destiny. Just because something can be done, does not mean that it must be done. Now, where did I put that chronograph?