At the beginning of the movie Crazy Friday (2003), the mother character (Jamie Lee Curtis) pulls at the feet of her daughter (Lindsay Lohan) as she clings to the bars on the headboard of her bed. An alarm clock sounds as they begin their day with a battle of physical and mental will. The bedside table is small and black, with loud red numbers. It has 6 o’clock on his face as he screeches.
When I was in high school, I was also engaged in a battle of wills with my mother and my alarm clock every day. My mother, however, did not yank at my feet. “I would put my face close to your head and whisper in your ear and (try to) kiss your cheek,” she recalled in a recent text message. That annoyed me so much that I would eventually give in and get up. (I like it now.) I remember lying in bed before school and imagining this “Freaky Friday” scene, wondering what my life would be like if I had a headboard.
I never liked getting up early. While I recognize that it is virtuous in some parts of our culture to wake up at dawn to get up and grind, I prefer not to. I famously slept through my last morning of high school. I generally strive to be responsible and on time, but waking up — especially when my seemingly powerful internal clock tells me it’s not time — has historically been a challenge for me.
During the pandemic it became so much more challenging. My time became silky and smooth, like an eel determined to escape my grasp. I couldn’t be anywhere every day. I let myself sleep in later and later in the name of self-care. Every night I went to bed early. Every morning I woke up just before my work day was due to start. As time went on, I started to wonder if maybe I wasn’t being a little too kind to myself. Maybe I’d feel better if I got up at a set time every day and didn’t spend the 30+ minutes before and after sleep channeling blue light into my eyeballs through my phone.
I remembered reading that Arianna Huffington, a paragon of hustle and bustle, recommended putting your phone in its own designated bed every night. Her company, Thrive, called this product a “family bed,because it can charge up to 10 devices at once. The phones, which sleep from head to toe, resemble Charlie’s grandparents in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory†
The telephone bed can be bought for $65 – lower than the original price of $100 – on Thrive’s website. It is mini and made of wood, with white sheets and velvet and satin lining. A few months after the pandemic, I was almost tempted to get one. I started to dread my weekly Screen Time updates. I shielded my eyes every Sunday from the indisputable evidence of my wasted minutes and hours. If a peaceful night’s sleep away from the chaos of the phone could be bought, who was I to say no?
In the end I couldn’t justify the phone bed. I realized I could just put my phone in a drawer for free. And while the phone bed solved one problem, it didn’t solve the more immediate problem: that I would need a device to wake me up if I really wanted to sleep away from my phone.
In May 2020, my friend kindly bought me a simpler solution: a normal alarm clock. I started plugging in my phone in the living room every night, setting the alarm clock in my room, and waking up every morning to a horrible screeching. I felt good!
After about a year this clock stopped working. Either that or my body became too powerful again. I started sleeping through the alarm clock, one time I woke up disoriented at 8:58 for a 9am meeting. I returned my phone to my room as a backup alarm, which negates the purpose of the whole venture.
I decided to try again with a new, nicer alarm clock. I bought a beautiful Swiss quartz clock with excellent reviews. I found that this clock’s alarm was soft, elegant and tasteful – and therefore useless to me. A delicate chime does not wake me from my reverie. I need a scream. I took my phone back to my room.
After that second failure, I thought maybe I was hopeless. I had already made two serious attempts — and spent some money on — at being an alarm clock. Maybe, I thought, I should resign myself to blue light and scroll.
I’ve sheepishly set stricter screen time limits on my iPhone – in a moment of ambition and/or delusion, I set my Twitter limit to 15 minutes a day. As I scrolled in bed, the hourglass would appear on my screen like a nose-bleed reminder of the passing of time, of my one wild and precious life slipping away from me at 15-minute intervals. (Apple apparently opposed using the hourglass image for a long time because they thought users wouldn’t know what it meant. I know what it means! I can waste as much time as I want and the sand will keep flowing.)
As the months dragged on without an alarm clock and I waded deeper into my phone every night—into Instagram highlights of random people moms and Wikipedia rabbit holes about the ex-husbands of various celebrities—the more I felt I had to give an alarm, at least. an attempt.
So last September I went to my local hardware store and asked the sales person out the front if I could “see” the clock radio above the cash register. She didn’t know what I was talking about. I pointed to it. She said she’d never seen anyone buy one, but she sorted it out for me. I took it from her and said, “Hmm.” She said I could always bring it back later if I didn’t like it.
I bought it! For $17.59 I had a new regular clock radio. It has a small black AM/FM cable that reminds me of a rat’s tail, a detachable power cord, and loud, red numbers that tell me the time.
My third clock is assertively not the Wirecutter recommended choice. It’s unsexy and utilitarian. It has two alarm settings. I can beep on AL-1 and beam a local radio station on AL-2 a few minutes later. I can often snooze it – although I find myself wanting less and less lately. The prospect of hearing more of his beeps before the coffee is a real deterrent. I love it.
This object has not been without its challenges. The first few weeks I had it I didn’t know how to turn off the alarm. So I unplugged it every morning and reset it every night. l recently read that: “Before electricity, London clockmakers sent assistants to the Greenwich Observatory with pocket watches to get the exact time and return it, like hot soup in a takeout container.” I felt like one of those soup assistants as I flipped back and forth between my phone clock and my new clock, trying to tune the latter to just the right time.
The constant resetting was annoying, but also a chance to reflect on the nature of time, and how I have ultimate power to control how it is distributed (via this clock), but not how it flows on (everywhere else) . I was tickled by the feeling of being allowed to decide what time it was.
Time only moves one way on my alarm clock, like in life. It’s humbled to know that if I miss my target minute, I’ll have to go through all possible times again. The gap between 2:59 and 3 is huge, as is the gap between 8:05 and 8:04.
As I unplug and reset, I think about the time and what I know about it. Time is money. The time is up. A flat circle. Of the utmost importance. It is also an imposed system. An instrument of social control! A measure of productivity. A commodity. A social contract. A plague. A metaphor. A philosophical riddle. The foundation of capitalism. †The key machine of the modern industrial era† It occurs both naturally (see: the sun, “biological clock”) and man-made. It flies when we’re having fun, and strangely it compresses and blooms and clusters and spreads when we’re in a pandemic for two years.
My little clock is holding all this (sort of)! And I get to set it up! That’s a miracle to me. James Gleick, a science journalist, wrote last year that “Far from anchoring us in time, clocks cast us loose from the past, disrupting us from our natural sense of continuity.” For him, clocks make every moment visible to replace the prior. The clock continues, even though I don’t feel like it. It reflects a socially agreed-upon version of reality. I am happy to be an active participant.
My alarm clock is rich: it is a place of metaphors and disruption and social history imbued with unique power. But it is also just a cheap device from the hardware store. I’m glad it wakes me up.
After weeks of resetting my clock, I finally only read the paper manual that came in the box. I learned how to properly operate the device. It was actually very simple.
Lora Kelley is on the editorial board of The New York Times Opinion section.