Sunny Side Up


Last weekend I dug out a large hunk of perfect backyard turf to make the first full-sun garden I've ever had, and then -- just because I could -- I planted a sundial. Rather, I planted an old birdbath base with a top that was vacant for sundial occupancy, and waited for a sundial to come to me. When none appeared of its own volition, I scoured garden shops looking for a sundial that was neither costly nor tacky: no easy task.

At length I found a sundial in a curious material called ''pressed stone,'' which resembles old fashioned Bakelite but, unlike Bakelite, is not yet collectible; it was moderately inexpensive and not especially hideous. The salesman said, ''You don't want that.''

''I do too,'' I countered.

''No, you don't. It doesn't work.''

This salesman thinks I'm an idiot, I told myself. Maybe he thinks I think a sundial has moving parts. Maybe he thinks I don't know I could make my own perfectly efficient sundial out of a frisbee and a nail. Maybe I can turn his disrespect for my intellect to my advantage!

So I rummaged till I found a bronze sundial that was in mild disrepair and the floor model besides, hence missing its cardboard box; I demanded a discount, and made an idiotic little scene about how this and only this was the sundial for me, and kept it up at escalating volume till he agreed.

''Remember to set it for Daylight Saving Time,'' he grinned as I headed for the cashier.

''Yeah, right,'' I sneered. ''like, the sun changes its course for Daylight Saving Time.''

''No, of course not the sun, but you do have to change the . . .''

By that time I was halfway to the parking lot. I was fueled by righteousness and haggling, and I was moving.

Back at the yard I prepared to set up the sundial. I read the printed instructions glued to the back of the dial:

1. Screw the gnomon (shadow arm) onto the face (or plane).

2. Position the face so the gnomon points north.

3. Bear in mind that it will be sheer coincidence if this sundial tells time accurately.

Depressed by instruction 3, I nevertheless followed 1 and 2 to the letter. But when I placed the plane so the shadow arm headed due north, the shadow fell on III. I could tell from Mickey's hands on my watch that it was IV p.m. Accordingly, I wiggled the sundial around a little so the gnomon pointed more to the west. Then the shadow fell quite nicely on IV. . . .

And then I realized I had just set my sundial for Daylight Saving Time.

Minutes later, a good friend who knew I'd been eager for a sundial stopped by with one she'd just found in a second-hand shop: a slightly green and moldly version of the Pressed Stone/Imitation Bakelite model I'd looked at earlier. Figuring I shouldn't look a gift horloge in the moss, so to speak, I removed the one I'd bought and tried my friend's. Together we jiggled its position and squinted at it from all angles, but we never could locate a clear line of shadow to point out the time. We finally realized that the problem was a Pressed Stone/Bakelite robin squatting obdurately in the lower third of the face. The robin's shadow completely obliterated the shadow arm's shadow.

It was, in short, a sundial that didn't work.

I ran inside half-intending to phone the nice garden-shop man, the splendidly knowledgeable garden-shop man, and apologize for my bad attitude. But before I could dial, my mother was at my front door, beaming and proffering the big expensive solid-brass reproduction-antique model sundial I had given her and my father many years ago as an anniversary present. Plus the squatty little pedestal I'd thrown in with it.

I rushed outside, placed the newest sundial on the old birdbath stand, placed the squat pedestal among some cilantro plants with the purchased sundial atop, jiggled each into position, sighed contentedly, and, judging it high time (pun sort of intended), repaired to the kitchen to make the season's first Strawberry Daiquiris for my mother, my friend and myself.

Leisurely we drifted out back with our frosty goblets. (My friend cheerfully acknowledged that the bird-face sundial would do very nicely on her sunless porch). I checked Sundial One; it agreed with Mickey that the time was just after VI. Then I walked further to admire the much prettier face on Sundial Two. Talk about brazen! It said V:30.

That was a couple of days ago. Since then, three or four times a day -- no, make that three or four times an hour, during prime time (no pun really intended here, though I see two at the ready, and one's quite subtle) -- I obsessively check my new sundials against each other. No question about it. They may be identical geometrically, numerically and conceptually. But Sundial One keeps better time than Sundial Two.

O Most Sunwise Guru of the Garden Shop, if you know why this is so, call me. Any time between VIII and XI. I promise I will hang on your every word. And I will say I'm sorry I forgot that a sundial really does have a moving part: one that is very big and very hot, very golden and very mysterious.

Clarinda Raymond teaches writing at Towson State University.

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