See this Mondaine watch? Like it? I do.
I should. My wife bought it for me as an engagement present, and I adored it the minute it jumped out of its box. Of course, it didn't really jump, but I like to think that it did. I like to think that this watch can do anything, because it can certainly disappear.
Back in 2000, when I first found an image of this watch in Rome, it seemed unlike most of the watches around. Here was the anti-Swiss Army, the non-Swatch. The problem is that now the rest of the world loves Mondaine watches, too (although try to find the chronograph version of this one -- it's no longer made).
Watches and I, we've been lovers. As a kid, I read Esquire and GQ, cover-to-cover, paying close attention to the timepiece ads. I recall regularly borrowing the maximum amount of back issues from my local library, and gawking at the watch-faces. "I only read these for the articles," I once joked to the research librarian, who had seen me purposely photo-copying Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese. The irony isn't lost on me now as I write for style-oriented magazines (sometimes about gadgets), but I still love seeking out timepiece ads aside long-form journalism. They belong together.
As a kid who grew up in a town where many people lived beyond their means, the watch ads seemed realistic, sold images of a men's life that existed. Maybe, one day, I, too, might find myself wealthy and sport a historic Omega. The imagery of douchebaggery was couched so heavily in quality even during the early 90's that I didn't think about the virtues of many guys I'd seen with a version of my wrist-envy.
But I never got over my timepiece obsession. I didn't--and still don't--consider it superficial. "Time is the most valuable thing I could possess." I wrote that sentence in a childhood journal when I was 11 years old.
Today, I don't like ostentatious watches, and I basically wear the same pants everywhere. I appreciate design, but things aren't as meaningful to me as an adult. Perhaps that's why I lose lots of them. Often things that represent important moments in my life. Things are just carbon, I rationalize. I can always make more money, replace them. Pieces of matter are just pieces of matter. Everything important is invisible.
* * *
I stayed away from watches for years--first, because I played the violin, and later, because I didn't like anything constricting my left wrist. More recently my reasons have been existential. Still, I've always felt somewhat naked without a watch--too casual or unadorned, childishly free. This is nice when I'm at the ocean, or hiking the hills, trying to work up a sweat, but it has not felt great in work situations.
Given this history with style, I'm now repulsed by watches that brag about one's bank account. But the scale has tipped in the former direction over the last few months. It has something to do with getting older, I think. It concerns wanting to get on a track, focus. Get a few objects--things you care about that you can feel with your hands--and hold onto them. Someone who will always be missed said that to me once.
So when family members offered to buy me a watch last winter, I became excited. Then, instantly, I couldn't decide on one. It seemed like nearly--just nearly--as big a commitment as something human--say, taking on a mate. My watch would be my watch--at least that's how I would want it--and I would never attempt to purchase more than one. (How wasteful.)
Moreover, I wanted something that might make me look a little more respectable in selvage legs. That way, I could dress down to a lunch meeting and still seem somewhat serious. (LA, if you don't live here, is full of people who dress supercasually but usually wear one serious piece of something to remind you they're not homeless--or, on the other end of the spectrum, that they're fabulously rich. The fun, I think, is never completely knowing the difference.)
This sent me searching for a watch. And when I say searching, I mean hunting (like, with weapons and scopes and anxiety about accidentally shooting a living thing). I looked at the men's mags, I looked in J.C. Penny. I looked at men's wrists at restaurants, often receiving strange turn-glances I couldn't shake for an hour. (No: I didn't want wrist implants.)
I couldn't find anything I appreciated and admired. I was as turned off by the expensive heavy lifters as I was by the Citizens. The middle of the road pieces were equally boring. I wouldn't get a watch just to get a watch. Maybe all watches were inherently less than ideal. Who needs the time anyway?
Then I found it. The watch that I'd imagined even before making a conscious attempt to search for it. The neatly designed guy at the top of this page. The Mondaine evo chrono. Based on Hans Hilfiker's 1940 design for the Swiss Railway, it wasn't a clunky diving watch that says, "I own a plane." Nor was it something too fancy or overpriced. I appreciated its utilitarian design. I loved the way its red second-hand jumped forward before each minute. I loved the stainless steel case, its circular solidity, its lack of jewelry, the straight lines, and those other little circles clicking around, making sense of the universe in ways I could not fathom.
I'm now told that the thing gets people into the London Design Museum for free, and that it's revered by watch-seekers, even those who throw down thousands to own an IWC that looks like a Timex. I liked it before I knew any of this. I considered it indubitably clear, loved how light it felt on the wrist, its simple black band. This was a watch I could wear all the time. And it said just a little about me: That I appreciate good design. That I consider clarity an art.
Which is why I was floored when my fiance read my mind--after learning all about how nuts I am concerning what I put on my wrist--and actually gave me the watch I privately loved for our engagement. I hadn't expected an engagement gift. I didn't know prospective grooms received anything other than a story to tell others about buying The Ring. Maybe others don't; I do appreciate how lucky I am.
But I am also now saddened in the wake of what happened last Friday, when, at 300 Medical Plaza, Los Angeles, the building that houses the practice of a haughty UCLA doctor, in Westwood, my watch was lost. Maybe forever.
It might be of some significance that I had been nervous to see this doctor. Not because of what he might decree. But because he probably wouldn't have anything to say. These days, I get sent to lots of doctors because of some medical mysteries. This is an age when doctors don't have to ponder if the out-loud thinking could be used against them in a court of law. That doesn't apply to many of them, of course. I've had excellent doctors. But lest we forget, doctors, and there are a lot of them, are just people like you and me, and some of them, like many Americans, don't want to work very hard. Someone's either special--communicative, and willing to go the extra mile--or he's not. Humanity, insight, and accomplishment in our meritocratic culture often don't go hand in hand with anything else.
Pardon the tangent, but this is what was consuming me as I left my latest unproductive appointment with a world famous specialist: when I forgot to put my watch back on after the exam as I trodded out the room with loosely tied shoes. I didn't realize I had left the watch there until an hour later as Lina and I ate lunch in a restaurant, calming our nerves with artisan cheese.
I nearly regurgitated the food when the thought hit me. My watch. Not here. I spazzed. A wanna-be starlet at the outdoor cafe scoffed. I sipped some ice water and cleared my throat. I looked at Lina squarely. I gargled without trying, eggplant still in the throat.
"It's gone. My watch. I lost it."
"You lost it?"
"At the doctor's office. I left it there."
"Oh, god. You got me worried. I'm sure it's still there. Wait, are you sure you left it there? They probably have it. It's probably at the desk. Someone turned it in."
"I know I left it there," I said. "Remember how when I signed out, I didn't have it on my wrist to tell the time?"
"Yeah," said Lina. "And I also remember you having it to check the time on your way in."
"It's been so nice not to have to look at my phone to tell the time anymore."
"You lost your watch."
"I lost my watch."
"We'll go back."
"You'll get it back, don't worry."
"Ok," I said, realizing only too well what the watch signified, how I'd feel if Lina had left her very expensive diamond ring anywhere but on her finger.
Did this seem like I didn't care about our engagement? About staying on the new path? That I took the whole thing all too lightly? Or worse, did it seem like I might not take it lightly but that I would drop it anytime some smug doctor with four important degrees on his wall would take the time to look me over? How could I have a family if I couldn't remember my watch after a doctor appointment? I was unhinged.
Then, in my wife's eye, I saw a tear.
I had lost the closest thing to an engagement ring I had ever received -- from the only woman I would ever want it from. I would get it back, though. Or would I?
Cut to: Driving hurriedly across Wilshire. Calling all kinds of automated machine-people at UCLA who couldn't, wouldn't connect me to a person. Checking the floor of my bag a million times to make sure I wasn't crazy. Racing around the medical campus' circular driveway, jumping out of the car and almost tripping into a closing elevator door.
* * *
[Note: The following change of tense must be accepted, because you're reading a blog...]
I'm in the basement of the building now, galloping into the doctor's office. I slow down, calm myself, so no one thinks I'm crazy (hah, this is neurology).
I explain the deal to the lady at the desk. She takes me to the room I used. The examination table flaunts fresh white starchy paper. The doctor is gone, the halls empty.
"It's not here," she says as she checks the floor. "It wasn't turned in."
"Who else was in here besides the doctor?"
"He saw you," she says, "then moved to another room."
"Who cleaned the room?" I ask.
"I actually cleaned the room," she says. "I didn't see it. And it would have been turned in if you left it here."
"I definitely left it here."
"Then it would have been turned in, or I would have found it," she said.
"Maybe the doctor has it?"
"Maybe. I'll have him call you when he returns. Maybe he took it and forgot to drop it off."
Was this a viable option, though? Could an Ivy League-educated chief of neurology have taken my beautifully utilitarian and artful watch/engagement gift?
I asked my friend Joe a couple days later, after repeated phone calls to the hospital and no results.
"Why couldn't he have taken it?" he said. "I bet there's a better chance he took it than the receptionist/room-cleaner. Those guys are meglomaniacs."
I agreed with him. My doctor had seemed meglomaniacal, no offense to other doctors I love.
But why would a Neurology Chief -- I imagined he led a tribe -- need a watch like mine? Didn't he earn a healthy six figures?
"It was a pretty nice watch," Joe said. "It wasn't fancy, but it was beautiful. Some people like to steal. Turns them on. Doesn't matter if they treat people with cancer or ALS."
"It was beautiful, wasn't it?" I said. Surely, a fancy doctor could also get off on stealing his patient's stuff. Or I could have just dropped it in the garbage pail. It's nice to fantasize.
I thought about my history with watches. How I never felt I was meant to have them, but simultaneously desired one. Not least some kid's yellow swatch in third grade, the one he could take into the pool his wealthy father had just christened.
I thought about how this one watch symbolized something about me I wanted to share. How my fiance had secretly known this without my having told her, and how she had found it for me. How I had slapped it onto my wrist before she had had a chance to engrave something on the back of it for me, stamping it mine forever.
Something about my impetuosity--my carelessless with objects; my deep reasoning for sometimes, randomly, challenging the world to take away what matters; my anger with people who don't take me seriously; my need to punish myself for continously seeking them out (even in a medical building), even when I know the right people are to be found elsewhere (perhaps a naturopath's house?)... Something like this had ripped this watch out of my reality.
I no longer had a reliable way of clocking time. I now had to take my spotty battery-dependent BlackBerry out of a pocket. I had to make an effort to get on the same wavelength with the rest of society, to now return to the out-of-it feeling I often walk around with; the half-there, half-gone attitude that always sees me nodding at others while I think about more pressing or bothersome concerns.
This was all somehow wrapped up in choosing a watch, wearing a watch, keeping a watch, and realizing that I had found the right person in my wife, confirmed the thousandth time when she had found the watch I had always wanted (i.e. when she had located for me the part of myself I'd always wanted to develop as I matured).
My friend Joe joked as he often does that this was yet another bad meta-sitcom script happening as my life. The rich doctor who has to steal your watch.
"Yeah," I said. "In the bad meta-sitcom, I'd return six months later, and he'd be wearing the watch. I'd ask him where he got it, and he'd say his wife had given it to him for his 25th wedding anniversary, how he'd always hated watches until this one, had never wanted to know the time if he didn't have to, had never liked wearing something on his wrist. Then I'd stare at him and he'd stare back with a smirk. A lone clarinet would play. Nothing would be said, and I'd cut to another scene with me driving home and arriving at my next meeting, an interview with a watch designer, late."
"That's exactly what it'd be like on a bad meta-sitcom!" Joe said.
"Yep," I agreed. Then I looked at the oven clock, a digital readout, across my kitchen to see what time it was. I had a men's magazine article due. A piece about some object for a periodical rife with ads for objects.
"Can you buy yourself another?" Joe asked.
"I can," I said. "Thankfully, the thing didn't cost 10 grand. And I didn't have the one Lina bought me for soooo long, right? I could get another now, re-write my memory like a hard-disk or flash memory, and in twenty years never even remember this mess. In the end, it's just something you wear on your wrist. It doesn't mean anything, right?"
"Sure," he said.
"Sure," I repeated.
Then I realized my oven clock was late. I had fifteen minutes to write an ode to another piece of matter that someone else could fetishize. The bad meta-sitcoms lack satisfying conclusions. Here was something I could count on.
Update (January, 1, 2011): The replacement watch my wife purchased for me after losing this one (!) was lost today in New York City, possibly in the garage below my brother's apartment. Mondaine no longer makes this specific model. My wife forgives me, and I wear a $30 Timex that receives compliments daily.
Update (January, 1, 2014): We found another one of these watches in Europe. You can't have it!