We're coming out of the dark ages. And this isn't some gradual, evolutionary process that will take decades or centuries to happen.

This is overnight. Better yet, it's tonight.

By the time we wake up Sunday morning, Daylight Saving Time will have taken over our world. That means life is about to get brighter for months to come - or at least it means this is a day with a way of making life feel brighter, and look brighter.

OK, so maybe this is one of the most optimistic days of the year for some of us. But this isn't just the sunshine talking. This is a fact: Today's sunset time starts with a 5 in Atlantic City - the sun will disappear from the sky at 5:59 p.m. Tomorrow, though, the sun just skips the 6 o'clock hour entirely and doesn't knock off for the day until

7 p.m. sharp.

That's our first 7 o'clock sunset of the year, of course - back in those darkest ages of winter, the sun wasn't even waiting until 5 p.m. to do its nightly vanishing act. And we're on the way to much better times ahead. By March 17, we'll hit 12 hours of sunlight each day. By the time summer comes along in June, we'll have almost 15 hours of daylight, and sunsets near 8:30 p.m.

That's a beautiful thing, the kind of trend that makes people want to stop and enjoy life - or go and enjoy life.

Take Mary Ann and Margaret Hardiman, a mother and daughter who were out on the Boardwalk the other day in their hometown, Atlantic City.

"Spring is in the air," said Mary Ann, who retired last year after 42 years as a nurse for newborns. "What better way to get your exercise?"

Note that the Hardimans (and their dog, Miles) were enjoying life outside on the last sunny day before our mini-dark ages this week - that three-day run of rain and snow and wind and flood tides and other nastiness that got here and wouldn't go away. But if all goes according to plan, or to forecast, we should see a weekend packed with sunshine and highs hitting the 50s, which is a great way to welcome one of the year's great days.

Mary Ann isn't one to fight with winter - it can keep her inside if she doesn't have to be somewhere.

"But now that the weather is getting better, we're out and about," she said, smiling at the thought. "We just love it."

Horatio Gordon is a Philadelphia guy, but when the weather warms up, he makes it a point to get to the shore as soon as he can. He has favorite spots are all over Atlantic City - "There are so many beautiful restaurants now," he says, ticking off a few as he enjoys the sunshine on his face- and he hopes to be back before long with his new wife.

"I like it now," says Gordon, 43, who works at a liquor store back in his real life, "but I can't wait for summer to kick in."

That will be a while, but hey, it's an optimistic time of year. And Kristen Norbut and Matt DeLapp, who both enjoy hiking in the mountains, were optimistic enough to walk on the beach on an early March day - even if the hard sand down by the ocean felt like a different, much colder climate zone than even the Boardwalk, just a short hike away.

Lots of shore visitors get fooled by the beauty of a sunny spring day, but Norbut, 26, grew up not far from the Belmar beach in Monmouth County, so she knew what she was getting into.

"It's just nice to get outside ... and not have to be all bundled up in hats and scarves and gloves," said Norbut, now of Norristown, Pa. - although when the couple ran on the beach that morning, they did play it safe with hats and gloves. "And we're looking forward to having that extra hour to hike, and not having to be finished by 4 o'clock or something."

DeLapp, 27, of Bethlehem, Pa., hiked the whole Appalachian Trail a few years ago - that's roughly a 2,200-mile stroll from Georgia to Maine. So he appreciates the value of daylight, and he obviously doesn't mind getting off the main roads for a little adventure. That's why, before they headed home, he was planning to take his girlfriend to some of the "non-tourist spots" he learned as he grew up visiting Atlantic City.

Of course, not everyone is as sold on Daylight Saving Time as these fans - every year, you hear complaints about the change of clocks throwing off people's body clocks. Then there's the age-old objection about sending young kids out to the school bus while it's still dark.

But the fact is this mobile hour of daylight, the one that moves tonight, is just a lot more useful and enjoyable to most of us in the evening than it is in the morning. And just think about it: In a country where we're always hearing about the virtues of saving, how can you be against saving daylight? What, would you rather waste it?

And now that we're onto the great American value of thrift, think about this: We give up one hour of sleep on one night, and our reward for that is an extra hour of sun every night for the next eight months or so. That's the biggest steal of a deal since Manhattan Island sold for $24 - even if we now have fresh reminders that that particular piece of real estate, while prime, is subject to flooding.

Joe Sowers, of Galloway Township, can qualify as an expert witness on matters of the sun and its celestial cousins - he's an astronomy professor at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. Sowers kindly took a little time the other day to answer a few questions from a science-challenged reporter, and near the end of the conversation, he came out as a definite supporter of saving daylight.

"Thank Ben Franklin. It was one of his better ideas," Sowers said, although he then added the famed founding father didn't exactly invent the concept of Daylight Saving Time. "But Franklin was the one who tended to make it popular."

It's very popular with this professor: "I'd be in favor of Daylight Saving Time all year," Sowers said - and yes, he does understand the objections.

But now here's one more small objection: If we had it all year, we'd never have the thrill of Daylight Time starting. We'd never get that feeling that our world is about to become a much brighter place - suddenly.

Overnight, even - on this night.

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