Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Note:  The following was written without the inhibiting assistance of actual research.

It may not be easy to nail me on this infraction – as there are so many variables involved – but I believe that I drove at least two of my High School Geography teachers into early retirement – and possibly the loony bin – trying to explain to me how, when it was one day in Toronto (where I grew up), it was another day somewhere else in the world.

I just did not get the “International Dateline.”  And unlike my classmates, who either got it or were too uninterested to care – many of whom urged me to stop my indefatigable quest, some of them with physical threats – I refused to relent until it was clear in my head how it could possibly be tomorrow someplace when it was today where I was.  (Not only was I obsessively curious about such perplexities, but what if we were asked to explain the “International Dateline” on an exam, and I lost marks by answering, “You know I don’t know.  And I’m not even sure I believe it!”)

I have the recollection of being informed that they don’t teach Geography anymore.  Geography was a subject where you learned where places were and, in the most superficial sense of requiring us to memorize their three major exports, something about what they did there.  (I recall you could rarely go wrong by, after listing the two exports you were sure of, guessing “sugar beets” for the third one.  Although I always wondered why you would import them when you already had “sugar beets” of your own. )

To this day, I can rattle off, not all, but at least the four northernmost rivers of England (Tweed, Tyne, Tees, Ouse.)  I just recently impressed a young family member by knowing the essential export of Sheffield – knives.  (Yes, our Geography classes reflected a preponderance of British Commonwealth illumination, though I do recall constructing a “salt and flour” map {whatever that is} of South America.)

The tiny sampling of my family suggests that the younger generations are generally indifferent to geographical identification.  Whenever I head for the atlas to show them concretely where some distant locale is situated, my educational efforts are invariably met with an exaggerated chorus of groaning.  Followed by an encore of irritation when I cannot immediately point my finger to it on the map.  (“That’s ‘G-11.’  But it’s not there!”)

Geography always fascinated me.  But I could never (and to a degree that I am about the demonstrate still can’t) get my head around the “International Dateline.” 

How, when it is today in Toronto, can it possibly be tomorrow in Australia or Japan? 

(I am reminded of a joke once written by the great Stan Daniels for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  {I almost never do this, but when I worked there, I specifically inquired about its authorship.}
Mary’s work arena was WJM, a local news station in Minneapolis.  On the wall, as appropriate set decoration, was a series of clocks, indicating the various local times of the major international news centers.  The dufus anchorman Ted Baxter once remarked {something like}, “Look at that.  It’s an hour later in New York, and two hours earlier in Los Angeles.  And in Tokyo, it’s tomorrow.  You know what that means?  There are people walking around Minneapolis who are already dead in Japan.”)

Unashamedly, I identify my confusion about the “International Dateline” with that dufus fictional anchorman from television.


Somebody made up time.  I think they were English.  (Because there’s this place where they specialized in “time” called Greenwich, and Greenwich (pronounced Grenich) is in England.

Here is the difficulty they were trying to overcome.  Understandably, you do not want the daytime – when you went out and did things – to occur at night.  Therefore – I’m just spitballing here – you could not have all the places in the world be the same time at the same time, because if you did that, some of them would be experiencing daylight while others, at that exact same moment would be entirely in the dark. 

And you can’t have that.  That’s crazy.

They needed to figure out a way where, wherever you were, it was daylight during the appropriate time, so you knew when to go do things and you knew when to lie down.  I am aware of those polar locations where it’s still pretty messed up, but you cannot accommodate everyone.  (And how would you if you wanted to?  Make the earth rotate differently on its axis?  Sorry, Scandinavians.  No can do.)

For the most part, there is a daytime and a nighttime and the daytime takes place when the sun is out and the nighttime takes place when it isn’t.  Which is good.  Now.

In order for that arrangement to play out, you need to divide the world into “Time Zones”, making it simultaneously a different time in different places so people could wake up when the sun’s coming up and not when it’s going down. 

They decided upon twenty-four “Times Zones”, one “Time Zone” for each hour of the day.  And everybody accepted that arrangement.  (Except in Indiana, where a law was passed allowing every county to individually determine whether it wanted to be on Eastern Time or Central Time.  Leading me to mistakenly arrive at numerous South Bend baseball games during the fourth inning.  Ready to sing the National Anthem.)

Now here’s where it gets tricky.

You have twenty-four “Times Zones.”  So, inevitably, at some point somebody’s going to slip over into the following day.  I get that.  (Now.)  Twenty-four “Time Zones” means that when it’s 12:01 P.M. someplace, twelve time zones away, it’s going to be 12:01 A.M. (or tomorrow) someplace else.

The unsolved issue for me is…


Where does tomorrow happen first?  And why is it there?  It seems like tomorrow should begin in Greenwich, where they made all this up, but I don’t think it does.  (Though I could be in error about that.  As I mentioned, no research.)

Here’s what I know.  Right now in New York (or Toronto), it is three hours later (than in California.)  In Midwestern Chicago, it is two hours later.  Arizona, just to the East of us, it’s one hour later.  The evidence suggests, therefore, that traveling East, it gets later. 

Conversely, traveling West, it gets earlier.  Which I can personally confirm because, when we go to Hawaii, they are two hours behind us.  (And sometimes three, when we change our clocks and they don’t.)

This understanding – that it is later traveling East and it is earlier traveling West – indicates to me that if you continued traveling West, it would eventually be, not tomorrow, but yesterday.

And it isn’t. 

As you continue going West – as the Mary Tyler Moore joke reminds us – it’s tomorrow. 

How come it’s not yesterday?

I know that when we go to Turkey, it’s going to be later in Istanbul, because it is always later going East.  But then, it would appear, “later” runs smack dab into “earlier”, and for reasons I cannot comprehend, although my calculations suggest that it should be yesterday, it’s tomorrow.  

I am hopeful of eventually unraveling this mystery.  For over thirty years, I wondered why lines of stopped cars at red lights continued to move forward.  I finally figured that out.  I imagine I will eventually figure this out as well.

Though the clock is ticking and I am rapidly running out of time.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I remember when the year turned 2000 spending much of the day watching New Year's in various locations around the world. From a quick search, it looks like Samoa is the earliest time zone where a day begins.

You may also remember that crossing the date line was what saved Phileas Fogg's bet in AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS.

And a small, pernickety note of the kind I seem to keep producing: the river you mean in northern England is the Tyne, not the Tyde. As in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and other such locations.


King Neptune said...

There is a fairly simple way to figure this out, but I suspect you aren't interested in solving the dilemma, not any longer. And as long as you have a watch, computer or a smart phone - or even better, a smart traveling companion - there's no need to be concerned.

A character on TV just told his girlfriend, 'where you go, there you are.' That's even simpler than my explanation of the date line.

On my first Westpac cruise, being a very naïve 18 year old, I was asked to go forward and watch for the International Date Line. I wasn't the only one, all the newbies received the same request. There were 6 of us, I think. We climbed into the forward gun mount, then took turns standing up so whoever was watching us could see that we made an effort. Yes, we knew there was no physical line just as we knew there would not be a mail buoy - but we were told to watch for that, too. As many times as I've crossed the line, I've yet to see it. And since I've been retired for many, many years, it doesn't look as tho I'll have any more chances.

Dave Olden said...

Of one thing I am certain:

It's Now, everywhere.

Don't believe me? Call someone in Sydney, Australia, and ask, "is it now?"

(This "time zone" thing is just an elaborate game of pretend, with 7 billion players...)