But where have we an academy for teaching the polite and useful arts of killing time, spending money, living fashionably?

– “Proposal for a New University,” Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure (1793)

Killing time may have gotten started as an expression without an underlying image. That is, killing just meant “getting ride of” without any imagined ax falling, no bullet fired, no poison pellets sprinkled in the garden against the hateful snails of time. In the context of killing time, Time is not so much a creature as a circumstance – like winter in Siberia or a train ride across Nebraska. It is a tedious emptiness, “a vast wasteland” (as FCC chairman Newton Minnow famously said of television). Kids of the first TV generation used to say, “There’s nothing on.”

Religious writers in the 1800s railed against killing time. Daydreaming, card playing, and following the latest fashions were a sinful waste, they said, when you didn’t know how many days you had left in this world to seek salvation. Waste is easy to visualize: a spoiled crop, a village fallen to ruin, a treasure buried and forgotten.

Shakespeare’s Richard II makes the metaphor personal: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me” (V.v.49).

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As a journalist, you get a new block of wood every day. At the end of the day, you may like what you made of it or not, but tomorrow there will be a new block of wood.

– Vince Gagetta, reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Most believers in “Tomorrow is another day” are hoping for a miracle. Gagetta expects another block of wood. You could characterize his view as grimly optimistic.

When writing a book, you have the pages you wrote yesterday behind you. You can look ahead to the day when your book will be finished, and the whole story told. For a beat reporter, there is only today, a block of wood to be carved. The grain may be open and straight or dense with knots – you don’t get to choose. But you are responsible for what you make of the material you are given. Albert Camus would have loved this definition of journalism.

Comparing Gagetta’s journalist to Camus’ existential hero Sisyphus – who must roll a boulder to the top of a hill, only to see it roll back down to the bottom, where he must go and roll the rock uphill again – the conspicuous difference is that the journalist gets nights off. Dividing our lives into days, we have two clear lines drawn between the past and future, and a clear view of the work in hand.

Idyllic follies never last, my little Chauvelin. They come upon us like the measles and are as easily cured.

– Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)

People hardly ever say “like the measles” anymore – first because this childhood ailment died out after the 1990s, thanks to vaccines, and second because it has come bounding back, thanks to fear of vaccines.

As the 1905 quotation shows, measles was once regarded as a childhood rite of passage – an unpleasant experience but not long-lasting. Measles was nothing next to other infectious diseases that were rampant in cities back then, such as whooping cough, typhoid, cholera, tuberculosis, and the flu, which killed 50 million people in the outbreak of 1918.

Measles kills at the rate of one or two per thousand infections. For the US, that’s only a few dozen dead children per year when measles goes unchecked.

…time, the destroyer, has begun to pile up rubble. Sharp edges have been blunted, and whole sections have collapsed: periods and places collide, are juxtaposed or are inverted, like strata displaced by the tremors on the crust of an ageing planet. Some insignificant detail belonging to the distant past may now stand out like a peak, while whole layers of my past have disappeared without a trace.

– Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955)

Memory is like geology for Levi-Strauss, or at least the part of geology that tears down the forms that it built up before. You could call it deconstruction.

This is the perspective of age looking back, aware that continents and monuments have slipped and slid, some sunk out of sight forever. This is not the perspective of forward-looking youth, when the whole world is new and yet to reach its height.

The peak that stands out in memory is a least-likely survivor, grinning idiotically after all others have been worn down to nothing. You strain to remember the face of a loved one and yet can recite every word of the song from Mr. Ed.

Life is a journey.

A google search of “is a journey, not a destination” yields 1.5 million results, mostly quotations about Life. The “life is a journey” metaphor is one of the oldest in literature, answering one of our oldest questions: Why are we here? The concept of travel helps us understand novelty and change, for it’s a wide world, and the traveler is not exactly the same person he was at the beginning of the journey.

The google results that are not about Life relate to subheadings of Life (such as Wisdom, Healing, and Sustainable Fashion). Most of these are of the “sex is not about orgasm” type. As often as Catholics used to say “It’s a mystery,” the new explainers say, “It’s a process.”

The following are journeys, not destinations:

PHILOSOPHY

Happiness, Peace, Success, Joy, Art, Education, Destiny

PRACTICAL SELF-HELP

Fitness, Nutrient management, Losing weight, Quitting smoking, Gut health, Yoga

EMO SELF-HELP

Recovery, Growth, Therapy, Creativity, Strength, Love, Trust, Home, Faith, Attachment in adoption, Stages of life: Birth, Childhood, Youth, Motherhood, Everyday Parenting, Retirement

BUSINESS MANAGEMENT

Innovation, Leadership, Diversity, Becoming culturally competent, Entrepreneurship, Communication, Team transformation, Agile transformation, Walking the talk, Total quality management, Digital transformation, Cyber security

AVOCATIONS

Food, Coffee, Tango, Photography, Writing

Some people work their entire adult lives thinking Retirement is the goal. Retirement is the beginning of another journey, leading to Death – yet another process, with stages, still not a destination.

Photo: Unknown

We are but a moment’s sunlight, fading in the grass

– “Get Together” by Chet Powers (1964)

This line from a quintessential song of the hippie movement has a biblical ring, echoing “All flesh is grass” (Isaiah 40:6), but is quite opposite to the pessimism of the prophet. Temporary as grass may be, the lyric sees a brightness and beauty that is worth reverencing.

“Dust in the Wind” (1977) by Kansas is more biblically bleak. All we are is dust in the wind? Weather in the Midwest is nobody’s idea of a good time.

Metaphors highlighting the limitedness of life form a long (and not very varied) tradition in literature. In English, the tradition includes the Venerable Bede’s comparison of life to the random flight of a swallow through one door of a jolly mead hall and out the other. For a short while, the bird is in a place of warmth and fellowship; then back it goes to the chaos of a stormy winter night (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II.13; AD 731).

Of a feather but from the other side of the world is this musing by Su Tung-p’o, written in 1061:

Wanderings of a lifetime – what do they resemble?
A winging swan that touches down on snow-soaked mud.
In the mud by chance he leaves the print of his webs,
but the swan flies away: who knows to east or west?

Translation by Burton Watson, Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o, 1994.

Photo: Karl Stull

Race against time

You can’t race against time – any more than a runner can race against the racetrack. A fish cannot outswim the sea, nor can a bird fly above the atmosphere.

However, it is possible to imagine a race against the clock. On the day Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes (May 6, 1954), he circled the track faster than a clock’s second hand swept around its circle. Even so, though Bannister beat the clock, he did not outrace time. Crossing the finish line, he was 3:59.4 minutes older than when the race started.

Consider an alternative scenario:

Time is a train, heading to Buffalo.

A runner in the caboose advances from car to car toward the locomotive, moving toward Buffalo faster than time itself. The runner climbs onto the cowcatcher in front and, with a hypothetical leap, arrives in Buffalo before the train of time – an achievement of infinite phenomenological significance but, alas, a very brief moment of victory (even Bannister got to hold his record for 46 days).

Is time like a train? Or is it more like a river, which is already joined to the sea before any boat can begin racing downstream?

In a search of Google Books, the earliest instance of “race against time” occurs in 1788, when the author of The Annual Register, Or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year, promises he will write unhurriedly.

Photo: Karl Stull

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