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Pieces of Time

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“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” — C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson’s Law

C. Northcote Parkinson [The “C” stands for Cyril] was an economist who reached beyond that dubious discipline to write a series of novels, still in print. His crowning achievement was an ability to make stuffy economic principles palatable through humor. I may not understand the academic discipline any better than I did fifty years ago in ECON 151 but it’s not so intimidating.

His first best-selling book (Parkinson’s Law of 1957) made high school less onerous, if only slightly, because I could laugh when I desperately wanted to hide. [High school was bad, but more about that another time.] Its core principle concerns the relationship between time and work: Consider the case of an elderly person intent on thanking their nephew or niece for a birthday gift.

  1. First there is the matter of paper; whether to use the monogrammed stationary (in short supply) or find an acceptable substitute with matching envelopes. Rifling the writing desk yields no easy answer.
  2. The fountain pen is in its proper place, but the ink cartridge is almost empty. So, locate the ink bottle and make a trip to the kitchen sink to avoid spillage.
  3. Compose the text in pencil draft before committing it to ink. Be certain to mention the gift itself and doubly certain it’s the correct one. [Reflect on last year’s mix-up.]
  4. Check spelling.
  5. Write the note itself.
  6. Check the address. Where is that address book?
  7. Stamps.
  8. What to wear on the trip to the Post Office. Does it look like rain?
  9. Why not drop off some dry cleaning on the way—a notion that generates its own independent timeline.

You see what Parkinson is getting at? While some of us would be content with a “thank you” phone call, this task has consumed over two hours and forty-five minutes.

The corollary to “Parkinson’s First Law” also concerns time. He postulates that the discussion of any topic is inverse to its value and offers this case: A meeting of the University Budget Committee.

Near the top of the agenda is a major financial outlay for a particle accelerator. But the committee’s membership is composed of administrators, faculty and staff, none of who come from the hard sciences. None of them has ever seen a particle accelerator, however, but neither are they willing to admit ignorance (on this or any other topic). Clearly the university needs one of these things, so the eight-figure expenditure receives no discussion and a unanimous affirmative vote. Let it not be said that our institution is not at the forefront of technology.

The next item comes from the English Department, whose underpaid overextended faculty need several boxes of chalk for their classrooms. A wave of guilt sweeps over the committee for their casual and ill-informed acquiescence to an expenditure of ten million dollars, so they become suddenly responsible. “Didn’t that department submit a request for chalk just last year,” someone asks. “Yes,” another member shears, “and they think we’ll overlook this callous disregard for university finances.” Someone wonders aloud where this will all end: “If we give in to this, they’ll be back next month for erasers. Mark my words!”

Parkinson’s first and second laws weigh heavily on me tonight, especially as I compose myself to write an actual letter to a friend. The paper, ink, envelope, address, and stamps are at hand. Their gathering has afforded time to recall the letter just received, its salient points; what’s unsaid between those lines. I consider inquiries to make, perspectives to offer, obtuse stories to share, and (most importantly) cheap advice to keep to myself. And while it will take less time than the aforementioned “thank you” note, my time here is invested, not consumed; my friend’s concerns addressed rather than glossed over; my relationship enhanced.

These moments are mine to give and gladly.


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