Sarah Shapiro

A watch amidst the galaxies

For quite some time, I’d been on the lookout for a new watch, and while out shopping on Pico with the children during summer vacation, I spotted quite a nice one.

It wasn’t what I’d had in mind, exactly. The face, while simple and ungimmicky, was too simple and ungimmicky, almost pretentiously so, and the face was round, and a little too big. It lacked delicacy. I’d been looking for one of those watches with rectangular faces — a chic, narrow face on a slender band, whose quiet self-restraint would express not just unpretentiousness, but would possess that intangible quality, je ne sais quoi, which elevates a merely functional object to a thing of classic beauty.

On the other hand, there was nothing really wrong with the watch. And during my long search for something I could live with happily, I’d seen a lot of really terrible timepieces. Gaudy, overstated watches that tried too hard to get your attention, stirring up excitement artificially. Corny ones that tried to look old-fashioned, like some kind of Grandfather Clock with Roman numerals. Ridiculously stilted ones that tried to look futuristic, au courant, state-of-the-art, but ended up just being implausible and immature. Watches that strove to make bold, uncompromising statements, or aimed too blatantly to convey the quality known as “understated elegance” and missed.

In the watch’s favor, on the other hand, was the fact that it was silver, and thus matched my bracelets. All my jewelry is silver. I don’t look good in gold. And I was in a hurry. Our vacation was winding down. Our flight back to Eretz Yisroel was in four more days.

Last but not least: the $20.00 price-tag. This wouldn’t have been as much an inducement had my children not been present alongside me at the Target jewelry counter. It was an opportunity to show them their mother’s modesty and frugality. I take healthy pleasure in beautiful things, as much as anyone else, but I know when to draw the line. I’m not materialistic. And I certainly didn’t need my children’s admiration; it was a matter of serving as a good role-model and imparting good values.

I bought it, and thought I was happy. But even as I emerged from the Target parking lot, that’s when things started going downhill. For the children weren’t really focusing on what they’d just witnessed. They were more interested in their own packages, and I realized that it was I—and I alone–who would be living with my choices. The new watch personified not subtlety, I realized, as much as self-annihilation, and as I drove off, every time I glanced down at it, either to check the time, of course, or to get a feeling for how it was doing on my wrist, I felt not only unselfish, modest, and un-self-dramatizing but unfulfilled and empty. My need for artistry and aesthetic excitement had been left unmet, sacrificed on the altar of – well, I don’t know, I couldn’t define what the altar was yet. Whatever.

Time passed, and I must say that I was managing well. But let’s look at the underlying causes behind this incongruity between inner and outer self.

We’ll begin with what prompted my search in the first place.

Certainly not that I needed a new watch. The one I’d been wearing was handsome enough–a stylishly black-faced hand-me-down from my mother. I was quite content with it, if not thrilled. Wearing such a hand-me-down linked me with a larger history, a sense of my place in the world, and also reminded me pleasantly of my beloved mother. Its only problem was that it needed a new battery.

Actually, the story had its genesis one night early last winter in a parents-teachers meeting. I was trying to keep my eyes, if not my mind, on the principal as she shamed and advised us, when my wandering gaze fell upon the hands of one of the mothers in the row ahead of me, one seat over to the right.

She was a blonde, this woman, and I’d been confronted by the back of her head all evening. It was aggravating – the glossy fullness of her smooth shoulder-length hair; the pricey, if cliched, savoir-faire of her tweedy skirt and cashmere sweater; the camel-colored coat –  silky lining exposed – that she’d shrugged off casually onto the back of her chair.

Above all, it was the watch. (Not to mention the slender wrist and beautifully manicured nails.)

First, the band. Sturdy yet delicate, subtly tapered. Made of soft leather, a light-colored brown.  Not worn-looking, of course, and of course not dirty, but not brassy or right-off-the-shelf, either.  It exuded a well-seasoned, traditional air.

Secondly, the face:   a slightly exaggerated largeness not to my taste. Its roundness, also: not quite to my liking. In addition, it had phony Roman numerals, which I find pretentious and unnecessary.  I much prefer straight-forward numbers.  After all, we’re not in ancient Rome and let’s not pretend we are.

Nor, as I said, was the gold something I would have worn myself.

But the thing about this watch, aside from the way it suited perfectly the general appearance of its owner, was that on each point, north and south, of the face’s generously endowed gold rim, protruded one tiny golden knob. These two little protuberances were decorative rather than useful, as far as I could tell (and on that score, as you should have gathered by now, they weren’t to my taste.) But it couldn’t be denied, something sumptuous was going on here.  Something luxurious and luxuriant. The golden knobs declared in so many unspoken words that in her life this woman dwelled in a nest of lush comfort. All her needs were met, and then some. She was loved. The gold not only matched her blondeness…it was part of her blondeness. 

As you may have gathered, I’m not a blonde, and the slight excessiveness of decoration, while not to my taste, and certainly something I’d never have chosen myself, under any circumstances, nonetheless conveyed that this woman was accustomed to being well taken care of. And furthermore, that she took care of herself without ironic self-deprecation, guilt, or apology. Her polished shoes, had I been able to see them, were surely stylish yet sturdy, cradling what must have been shapely, well-formed feet. No fly-by-night, on the verge of a break-down shoes here.

She was a woman protected by self-love.

I wanted that watch.

Not the big round face, or the leather. I definitely did not want a leather watchband, especially if it was brown.

But those two tiny little gold knobs on the solid gold rim, unnecessary and unapologetic about the way they existed for no reason at all… I wanted something along those lines.

Upon returning home, I settled down for the foreseeable future. I knew in the back of my mind that one day, after a decent interval, the time would come for a replacement, and that I’d then be free–not to give you the impression that I was lacking in kores hatov–of the Target watch.  For now, however, I strove to make it my conscious desire to lekabel b’ahavah, and indeed, I did notice that I was attaining a higher madrega in this respect. I was coming to appreciate and value the watch with less judgmentalness, and less insistence upon complete satisfaction.

I focused on its virtues. I reminded myself that it was silver. I like silver, and need silver, rather than gold, for all my accessories. Secondly: it was neither crass, nor loud, nor stupid. No one could say I was drawing inappropriate attention to myself, or that I was betraying any lack of intelligence or refinement. Thirdly, each and every time I glanced down for the time, I felt like a good, sensible un-self-indulgent mother, and an un-wasteful, un-self-glorifying adult, one who doesn’t concern herself over-much with the impression she makes. Anyone who would wear such a watch is someone who’s too busy accomplishing and doing for others to worry about such things.

The value of these traits, I realized, was not to be underestimated. But whenever I checked the time, I couldn’t help but notice what it was that displeased me about that utilitarian, boring object attached to my wrist. And at that moment. I’d engage instantly, each and every time, in a subtle little feat of mental acrobatics to adjust myself to, then disregard, its imperfections.

Was it worth it? I had to ask myself. Was the spiritual gain – the struggle to come to terms with the reality of this purchase, and to strive to believe it was gam zu l’ tova – worth the day-by-day wear-and-tear on my emotions? Sometimes it seemed to me that although at first glance the aspect of my person that was being negatively affected by this incongruence and dissonance was arguably my nefesh, my lower, animal soul, there was also a certain aspect of neshama at play here. My simple, understandable human desire for a classy, elegant watch was a valid expression of my instinctual need for to create order and beauty in the world I inhabit.

One day, out for an errand in downtown Jerusalem, I was passing by a window display of watches in a store on Jaffa Street and allowed myself to pause.  it hadn’t occurred to me to start looking for another watch. Now, suddenly, I realized something. For the sake of a $20 outlay, there was no compelling need to suffer any further. My commitment to the watch was unnecessary. Buying myself one that I really liked would not, at this point, be an act of greed, but rather, would just be a normal event in a normal life. Well, maybe it would be greed, but it was just normal, completely human, greed. I was under no obligation to exempt myself from normal human life.

I decided to keep my eyes open.

Now I know you want to hear how this spiritual struggle resolved itself, within my price range. Did I ever find a watch, you want to know, that would reflect my true self? So here’s the story.

One afternoon a few weeks after the decision to open my mind and look around, having ducked into a jewelry store to check out the revolving watch display, and having drifted deeper in towards the back of the store, over to a rack of attractive, sparely designed, understated, slinky-feeling black purses (nice rectangular ones with little or no excess decoration, and with classic sharp corners) my eyes happened upon a case full of watchbands. And min ha shamayim, guess what I spotted right off the bat – a silver watchband that I really liked, one with which I felt an immediate affinity. I asked the man behind the counter to let me see it — he turned out to be a Russian immigrant — and I took the leap. In no time at all he had removed the cheap stretch-band on my Target watch, tossed it onto a pile of other dead watch-bands, just like that, as if the past had no weight at all, no claim on us, and amazingly, then he attached the new one, which was a softly slinky silver thing – all quietness and restraint, unpretentiousness, modesty, and understated elegance.

It was an amazing experience. I felt so alive, so present in that moment. I’d said yes to myself on a profound level, without spending a lot of money, and from that moment on, every time I glance down at my wrist, there’s my creation gazing back up at me.  In case you don’t understand why I say, “my creation,” I just want to make it clear that I had the Russian man attach a new band onto my old Target watch-face, thereby finding a fresh, creative solution not only with a new object but with an act of self-affirmation and selfcreation. The new band cost more than I would have expected, actually – maybe it was overpriced, I’ll never know–but at forty-five or so shekels for the band, plus the twenty dollars at Target, I still come out ahead. I  now have a watch that is in keeping with the grain of my personality.

Actually, if truth be told, the face is still a little too plain. But I have perfected the art of making that tiny, I would say subtle, almost imperceptible adjustment of focus each time I look at it, to erase its imperfections, and I’m really very pleased about that. Life is not meant to be perfect. I told my children what I’d done and could see they were impressed, as was my husband. I’ve mentioned it to a number of my friends, as well.

It’s not a rectangular face, which I must say I would have preferred.  That’s what still bothers me a little.  But I’m really very happy with it.  I even saw a watch quite similar to it yesterday in a display in downtown Jerusalem, and it had on a Gap label.  Not that I need such a stupid thing to serve as affirmation of my aesthetic decisions.  I go by my own taste and my own taste alone. Nonetheless, the Gap watch was selling for less, in total, that mine came to in the end, and I do have to make an effort of will to get that out of my mind.  In any case, I keep reminding myself that what I have is elegant, simple, and understated, and I get a small rush of pleasure each and every time I look down at it, which is good for my immune system.

The only thing is, a few days ago the New York Times was reporting the possibility that Russia’s Putin is threatening to use a nuclear weapon in his war in the Ukraine. He’s calling it “tactical” which does sound better, but I’ve read that hundreds of thousands of people would be annihilated in a few seconds in spite of the new terminology. And with all that radiation for the rest of us. Ukraine is quite close to us, you know. In fact, they say that radiation goes everywhere, in the atmosphere and underground, And in the water supply. Also, in the same day’s NYT Science Section, there was another article about that big new telescope in orbit over the earth. They say it has discovered that there are many more galaxies in the universe than previously estimated. I didn’t make a note of the exact figure, I think it was 245 billion. If you start thinking about that — two hundred something billion (it might have been black holes, not galaxies) it can make you wonder if I should be taking this much pleasure in a little watch.

No! No! No! I mustn’t think that way! There’s nothing but good in taking pleasure in whatever we can in this vale of tears, and it’s ridiculous to think otherwise. Let us frail mortals appreciate whatever we can. The watch is lovely and I’m really quite happy with it, and with myself for the way I handled it, and I see no reason whatsoever that I should go around ruining my own happiness with thoughts of two hundred billion galaxies, for goodness sake. Or black holes. Or a nuclear war.  //

About the Author
Sarah Shapiro's newest book is "An Audience of One, and Other Stories" [Mosaica/Feldheim]