Every four years, February 29th reminds us that human time is arbitrary. So why not change it? Or at least have a drink...by Ella Risbridger / February 24, 2020 / Leave a comment
Take one part Grand Marnier, one part vermouth, four parts gin and half a part of lemon juice (reserving the peel for the twist); stir over ice; strain; garnish; serve. Or drink. Let’s say drink. Why not? Why waste time?
It’s Wednesday 29th February, 1928, and in the London Savoy everyone is dancing and drinking the new cocktail “responsible for more marriage proposals than any other cocktail ever mixed.” At the same time, three thousand miles away in New York, a rebellious rubber heiress sits at supper with her matron sister and realises she’s wasting her life. She remembers the Great War. She remembers what it was like to live like you might die—and she doesn’t want to die like “yet another millionaire on her affluent neighbourhood block.” No marriages. No cocktails. No lavish parties. She wants to make a difference.
The rebellious rubber heiress is named Miss Elisabeth Achelis, and in a little over a year—just as Edwin Hubble announces that the “universe is expanding”, and the Roaring Twenties come crashing to a halt—she’s going to meet a man at the country club. It’s his country club, actually, run according to his rules (no blacks; no Jews). He likes rules. His name is Dewey, of Decimal System fame, and he’s pretty sure that the reason the world is all going so wrong is that there aren’t enough rules. The world, Dewey says, is too complicated. It lacks harmony. It lacks order. It lacks equality.
He tells Miss Achelis and his country club audience about the standardized railroad time.” He speaks lovingly of the metric system, and of decimal currency, and of how these small efficiencies will make a better, brighter world. The war is done, but there can never be world peace, he tells them, until we all run to the same hour.
And then he says the thing that’s going to change Miss Achelis forever: he says that world peace depends on a fixed and standardized calendar. He tells them, maybe, about the new League of Nations commission to find a new way of measuring time; tells them about how the International Astronomical Union at Rome, led by the cardinals themselves, has decided the old ways won’t do any longer; about how technology demands standardisation and about how the famous Mr Eastman Kodak—of Kodak Cameras, no less!—is backing them all the way. Throw out the Gregorian calendar, that “pastiche of fourteen unbalanced, irregular, and ever-changing” others, he urges his audience, and start again.
The proposed new calendar is a fixed calendar. Every year is the same: symmetrical, with four identical quarters; each quarter made of three months of thirty days, thirty days and thirty-one days; each date falling on the same day each year. Everything the same, year after year—every school holiday and faith holiday and bank holiday. Everything the same, forever. Standardized and harmonized.
Some days would vanish—no more 31st August, for instance—but some days would come into being—31st April, 30th February. And Wednesday, 29th February—cocktail day, proposal day—would be in time, for all time. Always a Wednesday, and always there. No more Leap Years. No more irregularities and inefficiencies.
Instead, the problem of the sun will be solved by what will be called Worldsdays: days without name or date. Days that fall outside a month and outside time. There will be two a year, their date will be “W,” and they will be a holiday for the World.
And Miss Achelis is in. She’s in for life. She’s in, “hovering” around Washington while the war is being lost and won; outside doors in Geneva and “squatting” at the feet of Gandhi. She wants to tell the world: we’re going to rewrite time to make it run the way we want it, like so many revolutionaries have done before us.
Take the Soviets. Take the French. Take Jesus. The world is what it is, but time is a construct. Or, if not time itself, then the ways we count it. The sun rises and sets the same whether we call it by one name or another or indeed by nothing. A month is a month and a week a week because we say so and for no other reason. You want to change the world? Change time
Our calendar—by which I mean Gregorian, January to December—is supposed to match the moon, and it does, sort of, sometimes. Calendars are human things to try to understand star things; tiny people lenses through which to look at the stuff of god. And this, obviously, where Leap Days come in: 29th February exists only to bring our invented calendar into line with the earth’s. Once every four years we add an extra day, doing in 2020 what we did in 1928. It’s a day outside ordinary time, and—once—a day outside ordinary rules. In Germany, women can dance men’s dances, and all over Europe women can propose (with a penalty for anyone refusing: a dozen gloves in Scandinavia; or silk gowns somewhere else).
And yet those marriages must go on after the day itself is done. Leap Day is an imaginary day on which real things happen. The children born on that day continue to age like the rest of us: time happens with or without our consent. Having had only eighteen birthdays does not make you eighteen. It’s like one of those riddles about broken glass and goldfish; or the one where the surgeon is a woman. Like our ideas about gender, our ideas about time are stories we tell ourselves to make the world make sense. It’s all too big for us to understand without a frame, too strange, too huge. We like to make things smaller. We like to make things have names. When the rover Curiosity died on Mars, NASA sang her to sleep. We call the days after planets, and the planets after gods, and when there are no more gods, we call them the names of people who mattered. We like to name things; to know things; to write things down.
I’m not Elisabeth Achelis: I don’t want to burn down time and start again. But it’s worth noticing the difference between what’s there and the story we’re telling about it. It’s worth noticing what’s made up, and who benefits. Who gets let into the country club? Who gets to be a surgeon? Who gets to propose 365 days of the year, year after year after year? Who has the time and the resources to do nothing with their lives except try, fruitlessly and forever, to rewrite time; and to do that simply and only because their father happened to be very good at selling rubber combs? And what else can we do, faced with unanswerable questions like these, except have a drink on an imaginary day?