What Time Is It?

“What is time? If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not.” St. Augustine

How often do you wonder what time it is? Time rules much our life. Time to go to bed, time to get up, time to get to work, time to have dinner, time to call it a day. And most of the time we really have a pretty fair idea what time it is.

Unless we are suffering from jet lag, we generally know when to eat and when to sleep. And that is what I am experiencing now, having returned from Italy to the West Coast. The flight took a fair amount of a day. The adjustment is going to take a fair amount of a week or two.

It is said that you need one day to recover for every time zone you travel through. That means nine days for me. Based on previous experience, I think that’s about right. I begin to wonder if the trip is worth it after all.

I find the west-east trip (Portland to Florence) doesn't cause much of a problem, hardly any, in fact. That’s odd given the reports of most other travelers. Perhaps it’s the pleasure of being back in Florence that does the trick. There is light, there is sun, the sky is blue. My clocks click in to Florentine time almost immediately.

On the other hand the return trip, east to west (Florence to Portland) really does me in. I’ve no idea why there is this difference. It’s still the same crossing of 9 different time zones. It isn’t that it may be grey, perhaps rainy, cloudy most of the day. Even when it’s sunny, as it can be in July and August, I experience a prolonged period of jet lag.

I don’t think age has much to do with it. It has always been uncomfortable. I just have to follow the routine, jet lag or not, and then eventually it will disappear. What it has to do with is the way we tell time. We tell time by our internal clock and we tell time by our psychological clock.

Our bodily rhythms, circadian rhythms and some say, our genetically determined temporal blueprint, govern our internal clock. Our daily routine and social schedule and obligations govern our psychological clock. These two types of clocks run fairly automatically and we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them.

But now these two time-controlling systems are radically askew to put it mildly, “fucked up” as Katherine Schulz wrote in her review of Till Roenneberg’s Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired.

When it’s time to get up here in Portland, it’s early afternoon in Florence. Who wants to have breakfast then? When it’s time to go to bed in Portland, it’s early morning in Florence. Who can sleep then? No one. It is miserable.

For me sleeping through the so-called night is the worst part of jet lag. The other commonly attributed symptoms—headaches, disorientation, memory loss, depression, digestive problems, irritability—never bother me. Fatigue and sleep deprivation do.

By the end of the day, I am so utterly exhausted that I usually fall asleep at once. But after sleeping for perhaps an hour or two, I’m up the rest of the night. By morning, I’m a wreck. I want to work; my body wants to sleep. After lunch, I try to nap, but then it’s early evening in Florence, and I haven’t the slight ability to nap then.

And it goes on like this for days. Eventually the disjointed craziness disappears, and I forget about all this discomfort by the time the next summer rolls around and Italy beckons once again.