E-Calendars Anonymous

Hi everyone. My name is Kim. I’m an e-calendar-aholic, and this is my first time at one of these meetings.

Welcome, Kim,” said the group of about 5, seated in the windowless, cinder block room, with orange, white, blue, and beige cabling covering the ceiling.

Kim,” said the leader, a white woman in her mid-thirties with her dark hair neatly pulled back in a ponytail. “Please tell us your story.”

I shifted myself on the slippery aluminum fold-up chair and began.

I’m one of those people who often forget what day today is. When I got my first digital watch, of course I started timing everything I could with the chronometer. And of course I annoyed everyone around me with “beep-beep . . . beep-beep beep-beep,” as I pushed each of the buttons, struggling to turn off the alarm I’d so cleverly set. The most mind-blowing feature, however, was that at a glance I could see not just the time and date, but the day of the week! Back when I wore that watch, I wonder how much time of any given day I spent checking where I stood within those three markers: time, date, and day.

I moved my short legs yet again, trying to find a position that allowed my feet to find the floor.

At some point after grad school, I felt I could no longer wear a big plastic watch with prominent buttons, so I lost the “day of the week” feature that I’d always had, although I usually managed to find watches that showed the date. For several years, losing the day from my watch didn’t matter so much. In the early 1990s, I worked at one job Monday through Wednesday, and another on Thursdays and Fridays, so I had a good shot of figuring out where I was in the week based on where my body was, or had been the day before. I found a women’s analog watch that allowed me to keep the date at hand.

This was my third meeting of the day having to sit still. I knew my hamstring was going to seize up. I decided to stand so I could pace and more fully gesture. I continued my story.

In the mid-1990s, when I had terrible tendinitis at the base of my thumbs, I stopped wearing a wristwatch and switched to a sort of pocket watch. In Switzerland, I found an upside-down watch (with second hand and date) attached to a pin, meant to be attached to a shirt. It was intended for nurses, so they could read it while taking a patient’s pulse. I kept it pinned to the top of the pocket in my trousers, so I could pull it out slightly, take a casual look down, then tuck it back. I thought this was very clever: the pin would ensure I wouldn’t lose it (except that it later broke), and no one would know I was checking the time during boring meetings. Before I switched from the nurse’s watch back to a wristwatch, I became adept at reading the time upside-down by glancing at other people’s watches. It became cumbersome to pull at my pocket to see it, the pin broke so I couldn’t attach it and, once it morphed into an actual pocket watch, the face kept getting scratched by my keys.

Now that I’ve joined the mobile generation, I usually don’t wear a watch. I rely, instead, on the phone in my pocket. It’s often just as inconvenient to pull out my phone as it was to pull out that nurse’s watch, and much more noticeable, so my ability to read time off others still comes in handy. As for the day and date: I think I’ve just become much more tolerant of being adrift. Perhaps that’s why it’s become ever more important for me to be absolutely grounded in the larger context of day and date when I do want to check in.

Now that you have the background, I can explain the evolution of my daily calendar. Like many of you, for a long time I relied solely on my brain and on having fewer time-sensitive obligations. Think how easy college was: you learned your course schedule at the beginning of the semester; you had to see a faculty member so you went during office hours; you went to the financial aid office when it was open; and you met your friends by wandering through the cafeteria and library to find them in one of the places they tended to be. Ah, yes, remember the pre-texting life?

For me, the demise began when I was working those two part-time jobs. Although I had few meetings, I could no longer track from one Monday-Wednesday to the next. I broke down and bought a little weekly calendar. In 1996, I started doing desktop support, which required not only making lots of appointments but also juggling how long I thought a particular task might take so that I didn’t overbook myself. The small square blocks for each day barely left me enough space. There were arrows drawn from a scrawl on Saturday to the actual Tuesday when the meeting was scheduled. Thankfully, along came the electronic calendar.

After I moved from archival work to the desktop support job, the IT office decided we should encourage people to use the shared calendaring system built into our email software: GroupWise. If you say it quickly, “shared electronic calendaring system” may sound like gibberish, but: break it down.

  • Shared. Everyone on the system can see your calendar (if you let them) or that you’re busy at a given time. You can invite someone else to a meeting, already knowing whether s/he is free. Depending on the social context (e.g. it’s your boss so you don’t have a choice), s/he can choose whether or not to accept your invitation.
  • Electronic. It’s online. In the early GroupWise days, that meant you could use it from any computer while you were at work. Then, it meant you could synchronize it with your Palm Pilot so that you could carry it with you in your pocket. Later still, it meant that you could actually access the GroupWise data itself from anywhere with an Internet connection by using a web browser: wow!
  • Calendaring. You can see your appointments by day, week, month, and year, etc. Basically, you can do anything with an electronic calendar that you can with a paper one, including: mis-placing it (although you always have your e-calendar backed up on a computer somewhere, right?).
  • System. It’s systematic. There’s an organizational pattern to it. You know: system. One of those amorphous words that means just about anything more than one.

At about this point, I noticed that the man with the big gut and the woman with the glasses had been nodding, as if to tell me “get on with it!” They knew all this stuff. I kept on talking.

A lot of people have asked my advice over the years about whether they should buy a Palm Pilot, or a Blackberry, or an iPhone, or use GroupWise, or Meetingmaker, etc. Of course, one of the reasons so many people have asked is because I’ve so frequently served as an evangelist for a college’s shared calendaring system, but anyway. For people who are tied to their Franklin binders, or have a very complicated calendar but it’s under control the way it is, an e-calendar or new e-calendar system may not be the right choice. I always tell people that the most difficult problem with moving from paper to e-calendar is that on paper it’s very easy to see exactly where you are in time: as you physically turn each page, you move further into the future. On a computer or “handheld device” (iPhone, blackberry, etc.), it’s easy to move quickly through time, and so easy to put an appointment a couple of weeks, months, or even, in extreme moments of inattention, years ahead of where it should be.

I saw the young, perky woman poke the professor, who’d been nodding off. The leader looked at her watch. I continued.

I’ve been using an electronic calendar since about 1998. Somewhere on my computer, I may have data going back that far.

I took out my iPhone, opened my calendar, and used “go to” to move to 2002. I felt panic rising into my throat.

Uh. Until I just checked right now, I had all of my data since March 2002 right here,” I said, gesturing at the iPhone. “If I had paper datebooks . . . they’d still be safe in my attic . . .” I gulped. “I’ve lost from March 2002, until August 8, 2008, when the piano tuner came at six pm. Ack! I gotta go!

The leader popped up, her face showing relief that I’d stopped. “Alright, Kim, that’s good. Thank you. Our time is up. Maybe you can finish your story next time.” I heard her whisper to the others “don’t forget to bring your coffee.”

I ran out of the room to check my computer. That data must be backed up somewhere! Right?


  1. Nice piece!

    Do you have your own birthday in your calendar?

    And is archiving really important? I know archiving in general important, but how said would it really be if you didn't have your schedule for a six-year block?

  2. Of course my birthday is in my calendar–and it's even correct!

    I am very sad to be missing 6 years of my life. If indeed that is true. To be continued!

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