Crossing the threshold

Beginning today, 197 days remain to me before I have to teach again. I'm unsettled to see the count-down already below 200, and feel I should work even harder. Soon it will be around 160, and then below 100, and then before I know it I'll be down to the last couple of weeks and filled with sorrow at the passing of the days. Actually, no matter how hard I work, I'll still feel I could do more.

But today this sensation is attenuated by my having finished one stage of my big project and begun another. For about four and a half years I've been collating fanqie from the major Chinese rime-books, and now I've finally reached the point where I'm satisfied that I have all that I need - I mean my database finally has all the significant fanqie for all the significant characters in classical Chinese literature.

I feel like celebrating, but when I get up to do it I realize there's not much I can do that would actually feel as good as it's supposed to. If I take any time off, I'll just feel I've wasted it. If I think about eating something delicious but unhealthy, I can tell that after enough time has passed I'll feel more remorse than pleasure. Sometimes not eating feels better than eating, even when my throat is eager to swallow something. I already drink enough sherry and sake to lubricate my work, and any more might slow me down. So the best thing is just to plunge ahead with the next stage of the work, like a cavalryman charging into driving rain. I spent about three hours today beginning to plan for the second stage of the work.

Collating fanqie is not exactly mindless work, but it certainly doesn't involve much intellectual effort. The greatest good that came to me from it was learning to recognize hundreds of variant characters and ancient forms, and picking up bits of lore from the Guangyun and Jiyun and the other books. The only way to really do that is to just sit and read the books, and almost no one else I know in the western world has ever done that for any length of time. So, looking back, I feel I've done something really unusual and worthwhile. Now that's a sensation I think few of my colleagues ever get from their work, so maybe just noticing it and feeling good about it counts as a kind of celebration.

The next stage of the project is much more challenging, but I believe I can finish it within the time I actually have. It involves a lot of reading in Chinese reference works - dictionary definitions, citations from Classical texts (yes, you have to read and understand each one), and dictionaries of the ancient script. Doing this is far more interesting than combing fanqie, and involves learning a certain amount of new vocabulary (modern and Classical), but it also makes me more tense. I always find that projects with a high proportion of mechanical to mental work are the most soothing. Well, I guess I'm in for a lot more tension from now on, but I still intend to try to enjoy it.

But that's not all that has changed in my life in the past few days. With the upgrading of the terrorism threat level to orange on Friday, the outside world has intruded on my idyllic scholarly life. I live in a part of the U.S. that is one of the prime targets for terrorism, and my apartment building is large and highly visible. It is also, obviously (to those who know how to look for the signs), run in such a way as to accomodate Jewish residents. I suppose I should really prepare an emergency travel bag, as I have long meant to, in case I do suddenly have to leave in a hurry. The most important thing would be to make it possible to continue doing my work, and that means keeping a complete set of backup CD-ROMs in the bag all the time.

When I was young, the Second World War was still fairly fresh in the minds of my parents and their friends. My father had been conscripted at age 16 and my mother had been in charge of distributing war ration coupons in her neighborhood as a teenager. In the 1950's and '60's, many of the people they knew at Columbia had been refugees from Europe, and almost all of those people had at a certain point abandoned one life and picked up a small suitcase or two to carry to a new life in England or the U.S. The more aggressive little boys I played with knew all about German tanks and airplanes and Nazis and such. The consciousness of the Second World War was really alive then, in a way that I don't think any war is today for my 18-22 year-old American students. Many of my own cultural heroes when I was growing up - Leo Szilard, Paul Hindemith, Sigmund Freud - had for several years kept packed suitcases that they eventually carried abroad.

I suppose in the back of my mind I've always thought the day would come when I would have to do the same thing. If it does happen, where will I go, and how will I live? On that day the world will look pretty grim, but at the moment the emergency suitcase still seems like an object full of romance and possibility. It's a little like listening to bluegrass music when you're feeling fine - but if your love really does walk out the door, you're going to curse every minute you ever took happiness for granted.

Maybe it's better, then, to put my head back down and read another Classical Chinese passage.

last day-log entry: February 7, 2003 | next: February 12, 2003