A Mulligan in Time: A Radical Leap

Nothing is perfect, except for the perfect things. It does not take a precise 24 hours and zero minutes and zero seconds for the earth to complete one spin on its axis; it takes slightly longer, but not so much longer that you could even call it a “tick.”

The earth’s rotation each day is only a tiny fraction of a millisecond slower than what we otherwise call a day, but these partial seconds can eventually add up. Twenty-six times since 1972, the international bureau of standards that handles time issues has added a “leap second” to all of our lives. The last year with a leap second was 2015, so if that year felt longer for you, there is a reason: It was. By one second. Clocks everywhere could have read “11:59:60” at midnight the night of the leap second, but they did not because no one makes clocks that do that.

The next leap second will delay the arrival of 2017 immediately before midnight on December 31.
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Time and Dr. Johnson

Samuel Johnson wrote, “He that hopes to look back hereafter with satisfaction upon past years must learn to know the present value of single minutes, and endeavor to let no particle of time fall useless to the ground.”—Rambler 108, March 30, 1751

Dr. Johnson was 41 in March of 1751 and several years into his work on his most lasting project, his Dictionary. Unlike most of the dictionaries developed for any language, and all dictionaries in English, Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language” was written by one man. An entire dictionary, with more than 40,000 word entries and over 100,000 literary quotations to back up and explain Johnson’s definitions and create an etymology (the study of the origin of words). It took Johnson nine years to complete it; 75 years later, Noah Webster published his own dictionary, which had 70,000 entries, took 25 years to complete, and cites Johnson throughout. The first completed edition of the Oxford English Dictionary took 75 years and dozens of scholars to compile its first edition, published in 1928.

Johnson’s Dictionary is not the best one written for or in the English language—the dictionary that sits forgotten on your shelf is probably named Webster and not Johnson, and the website that you use instead of a book is also not named “Johnson.com” or something like that. Johnson’s definitions are often complete sentences and are sometimes essays on the topic inspired by the word under consideration. His treatment of the word “time,” for instance, offers fourteen different meanings for the word: “1. The measure of duration. 2. Space of time. 3. Interval. 4. Season; proper time. 5. A considerable space of duration; continuance; process of time. 6. Age; particular part of time. 7. Past time. 8. Early time. 9. Time considered as affording opportunity. 10. Particular quality of the present. 11. Particular time. 12. Hour of childbirth. 13. Repetition of any thing, or mention with reference to repetition. 14. Musical measure.” (“Time,” Johnson’s Dictionary)

Johnson offers a quote from English literature, usually the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, or Dryden, as a pertinent example for each particular definition. Sometimes he offers as many as seven quotes. For his fourteen definitions of “Time,” he uses forty-six quotes.

Samuel_Johnson

Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds

This project would be difficult enough to produce in our era of desktop publishing (is there an app for dictionary creation?); Johnson put together his Dictionary in his house, with workmen appearing every so often to assemble a printing press and run off some pages. He paid them out of his own pocket. His personal library, large but not comprehensive, was supplemented by books borrowed from friends. The books were so covered with his markings that they were not worth being returned, the friends remembered.

It took him nine years to complete the Dictionary, yet he had promised it in three. For the rest of his career, Johnson was ridiculed as a slow worker; he proposed to work up an edition of Shakespeare’s plays (the first ever single source, authoritative edition that would be created) in 1756 and started attracting subscribers, but by 1762 another writer took a public jibe at him: “He for subscribers baits his hook/and takes your cash, but where’s the book?” His Shakespeare was published in 1765.

While working on his Dictionary, he published a self-written, twice-weekly periodical, The Rambler, to earn a living. (In other words, he wrote a blog while working on his big project.) Then, while working on his edition of Shakespeare, he published a weekly blog, um, magazine, called The Idler.

Samuel Johnson visited the topic of time over a dozen times in those two journals, and perhaps for understandable reasons: For someone so productive and yet considered a slow worker (The Idler was so named as a joke about his avoiding the long slow work on his Shakespeare), it is likely that few writers had considered time in so many facets. Any waking hour not spent earning a living was indeed “a particle of time (dropped) useless to the ground.”

Johnson had many health issues, ranging from regular bouts with a bleak depression, which he was the first to name the “black dog”; nearsightedness that glasses did not aid (or vanity made him avoid them); a disfiguring skin condition; and Tourette syndrome, a condition that did not have a name until the late 1800s and was not considered a medical condition in Johnson’s lifetime. The tics made him seem an odd character, and he felt he had to win people over with his wit. (Asked once why he made noises, he said it was a bad habit.) His many tics and violent gesticulations are described in every contemporary account about him written by his friends, so the posthumous diagnosis seems a trustworthy one.

A year and a half before his death, he described time and its slowness in old age thus:

The black dog I hope always to resist, and in time to drive, though I am deprived of almost all those that used to help me. … When I rise my breakfast is solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues barking, […] After dinner, what remains but to count the clock, and hope for that sleep which I can scarce expect. Night comes at last, and some hours of restlessness and confusion bring me again to a day of solitude. What shall exclude the black dog from an habitation like this?

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for February 25 asks, “If you could slow down an action that usually zooms by, or speed up an event that normally drags on, which would you choose, and why?”

The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 1 asks, “If you could slow down an action that usually zooms by, or speed up an event that normally drags on, which would you choose, and why?”

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No Time. Too Loose. Or, Time’s Mulligan

Nothing is perfect, except for the perfect things. It does not take a precise 24 hours and zero minutes and zero seconds for the earth to complete one spin on its axis; it takes slightly longer, but not so much longer that you could even call it a “tick.”

The earth’s rotation is only a tiny fraction of a millisecond slower than what we otherwise call a day, but these partial seconds add up. Twenty-five times since 1972, the international bureau of standards that handles time issues has added a “leap second” to all of our lives. The last year with a leap second was 2012, so if that year felt longer for you, there is a reason: It was. By one second. Clocks everywhere could have read “11:59:60” at midnight the night of the leap second, but they did not because no one makes clocks that do that.

If it was not for those leap seconds—and, every four years, leap days—our clocks and calendars would slide and slip all over the place compared to what they are measuring; if not for leap days, eventually New Englanders would be confronted with a frigid July and the dog days of December, and vice versa for the Southern Hemisphere.

What our clocks and calendars are measuring is perfect: a year is X number of seconds, days, months, but not the same every year. The earth’s orbit is regular and perfect, but not 365 days every year. It is almost 365 days, and a day is almost exactly 24 hours in length, and we live with the compromise we call clocks and calendars. The ancients came as close to exactly right simply from observation as they could—to within seconds.

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No one is perfect, except we are each of us perfect, perfectly ourselves.

The clock makers and the calendar printers, heck even the bureau of standards that decides how to measure things, regularly make adjustments to the ways we mark the passage of time. Everything, even time, needs a semi-regular do-over, a mulligan.

(The mulligan is a very specific rule in golf—a rule that does not exist in a place called reality—which states that “sometimes rules do not apply,” so do-overs do exist in the universe. Of course, my friends and I found ways to bend even this non-rule. In informal golf, friendly noncompetitive golf between or among noncompetitors, if one hits an egregious drive [if? when, in my case], a drive that everyone agrees there may be no recovery from, everyone might also agree to grant that player a do-over. That is a mulligan. He or she does not get another one for the remainder of the day, even if the mulligan, the replacement shot, was worse or if an even worse drive came off their club later on. My friends and I came up with the “retro mulligan,” in which a player kept his or her mulligan in the bag if the do-over was a worse shot. That was our contribution to the world of golf and the world of do-overs, and it was super-secret, I think. Maybe I will take a mulligan in tomorrow’s column. The “retro mulligan” was the only mulligan that a player truly had only one of, and using it erased it and the mulligan.)

As an idea, the mulligan is forgiveness from the universe, a creative admission that there is a better version of what you just did still available in you. There is a better version of you. The retro mulligan concedes that sometimes we grab a do-over prematurely in life. There is a saner version of a better version of you.

I have a perfectionist streak that I am striving to lose, because I can not be the best version of myself by placing perfect in my path. Perfectionism leads to procrastination, then paralysis. All those leap seconds and leap days, I needed every last one of them to get to where I am today. And I expect I will need every leap second and leap day yet to come, because I am keeping the retro mulligan in my golf bag of life. Every second counts, yet there is no time to lose.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 13 asks, “Good news—another hour has just been added to every 24-hour day (don’t ask us how. We have powers). How do you use those extra sixty minutes?”