Time not wasted

After today, 204 days remain to me until I must teach full time again. I'm on leave, and have already described my state of mind somewhat, in recent day-logs. My sense tonight, after many hours of work, is that no matter how hard I apply myself, I still tend to feel I'm not getting enough done, and my time is slipping away. I vowed, when my leave started, not to have any reason to feel that way!

All my life, there have been few things I've hated more than wasted time. In the 1970's, when New York was nearly bankrupt, I remember waiting endlessly for buses that had been canceled without public notification, and I can still feel a kind of residual bitterness at those lost minutes and hours. After a quarter century, the memory is so bitter that it still sometimes makes me want to gnash my teeth, and occasionally I actually can't resist doing so. I suppose most people don't share this particular hang-up.

On reflection, I see I have to remember that my perception of a day's work doesn't necessarily include the long-term gains I am making. Tedious little tasks can sometimes amass great results, and I mustn't judge myself too harshly. But I also have to ask myself, as I find myself undertakeing any small, repetitive task, whether it will really help me get the larger work done or not. It's too easy to fall into the mindless pleasure of some simple mechanical project without considering that my time is limited. Why? I guess because it's frightening to remember that my time really is limited.

In the end, I always think back to the E.B. White essay, "The Ring of Time". After watching a teenaged circus performer practice standing on horseback as the horse runs in in a circle, White says that she is young enough to believe that she is the same age at the end of one circuit as she was at the beginning. But he himself has become aware of the unrecallable fleeing of time; he can no longer feel himself the same age after even one circuit. It's a short essay (actually half an essay), and I've never seen it anthologized, but it is some of his very best writing.

The main work I have been doing is looking up fanqie for rare Chinese characters and adding them to a huge database of medieval Chinese phonology that I began assembling about four and a half years ago. It's awfully tedious work, and probably a lot of it is wasted work, because the fanqie in this rime-book are not very good. (I'm using the Jiyun, newly noded.) I have a lot of other pressing tasks, but this one is a matter of completeness with me - certain of these rare characters make their first known appearance in this particular book, so even if most of the entries themselves are more or less garbage, there is still some meaning in noting their first appearance. The danger is that a certain compulsive part of my mind would like me to enter the whole Jiyun into the database, and that would be great labor for minimal gain. I have to remember to keep a part of my attention on what I'm really trying to do. Forestall regrets by thoughtfulness.

The database is already complete enough that I have been able to begin using it for research more interesting than mere database entry. Last summer, I used the material I had then to assemble and publish a 250-page reference volume on medieval phonology, which my colleagues in the field seem to be finding useful. (Or maybe they're too polite to say they don't understand it!) I've also begun serious work on a long-delayed transcription system for early Chinese, for which the database was a necessary first step.

In the mean time, I am still getting a lot of pleasure out of reading the Jiyun, and appreciating all the little details that the compilers put into it, almost a thousand years ago. I think very few people ever do anything with this book, other than Chinese majors attacking the occasional phonology homework assignment. It must have been a horrific amount of work to assemble - and remember it was all done by hand, all 800 pages and 51,000 characters and their definitions, all copied and proof-read by hand, all carved onto woodblocks by hand, each copy bound by hand. It was written by committee, as were most official scholarly projects in the Song dynasty. Did the compilers, a thousand years ago, ever wonder if their time was being wasted by their committee chair? Anyway, in my eyes they created something intricate and beautiful, and after all these centuries it hardly matters what hardship they and their families may have endured to make it possible. In the year 2003, in the town of Silver Spring, all memory of that hardhip has evaporated away and left only a faint, sweet smell, like the aroma lingering in the morning from a glass emptied of sherry the night before.

last day-log entry: January 30, 2003 | next: February 7, 2003