Killing Time…

In Japanese there’s an expression 時間潰し – jikan tsubushi that translates roughly as “killing time”. Working in the Japanese bureaucracy, you often encounter low points in the cycle of work where it seems like all you do for weeks at a time is said jikan tsubushi – for teachers in particular, the period from mid-March to early April is rather slow, as students go on vacation and there is comparatively little to do until the start of the new school year.

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While ironically I’ve actually been quite busy lately(sometimes the job of a PA has a mind of its own), in other aspects of my life I feel like I’ve been “killing time” in my own way. With more than 5 months until my visa runs out, I am still hesitant to finally buckle down and make a decision one way or another about my future. In a way, I feel like I am “killing time” until the things become short, the sense of urgency deeper, and deadlines come to pass so I can know the outcome of certain things I’ve applied for. In some manner, it’s as if I’ve cast several nets into the ocean, and am now waiting to see if they bear any fish.

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Of course, in a way what I’m doing by all this killing time is putting off the things I really should be doing: either preparing for graduate school (next year, but you can never start too soon) or actually looking for a proper job in Tokyo. And when you frame it in such a context, 5 months seems far too short, and “killing time” takes on a much darker light: procrastination borne of a fear of failure, perhaps?

Someone said to me the other day that “in all the time I’ve known you, you never seemed happy”. While it made me sad to hear that, I had to admit that it was true. Recent weeks have been much harder than usual and dipping in and out of varying degrees of depression haven’t been very good for either myself or those around me.

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The underlying cause of the malaise is difficult to pin down (though others never seem to hesitate to offer their own opinions as to its source) but I do suppose it has been long time since I’ve been truly happy.

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There are “happy moments”, of course – weekend trips to kyoto, gorgeous autumn days that stretch on forever, savory wares at local food festivals, or curious smiles from cute Japanese kids – but they are all – to borrow a page from the Objectivists’ handbook – all happiness with a little “h” as opposed to a capital “H”. True happiness? Actual satisfaction? These things elude me and I feel as if everything I do exists as this superficial layer of insubstantial activity overlaid a paralyzing miasma of inertia. These little moments of “happy” – and all the motions from day to day – are simply another way of “killing time” until… well, I don’t know if there’s an “until”, but they are just killing time.

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Every e-mail message I dispatch, every phone call I answer, every piece of food I put in my mouth, trip I plan, crease I iron, suit I buy, friend I talk with, joke I hear, problem I solve, person I counsel – all of these things, built up, gathered and compiled into this set of strings passing from one second until the next, sliver of cognition from one infinitesimal instance of awareness, morning morphing into day, nights into weeks, weeks into months, months into seasons, cherry blossoms, floating dandelions, cascading orange leaves, wet smattering snow, this thing which is Japan as processed by this abstraction that is my life, silent and parsed into a thousand tiny bits as I vaguely follow that predescribed path from high school into college into job into graduate school into marriage and into family and blah blah-blah blah blah.

metacognition.

I think back as I lay on my floor, carpet that I bought for $68 dollars laying crusty and threadbare under shoulder blades aware of the interplay of floor and dirt beneath it – when did it all go askew like this? Was it when I broke up with M? This yet, still, how many years after the fact? Truth be told, she was nothing special. Or special, yes, but not irreplaceable. It hurt, even though I was the one who did the breaking, but perhaps what I failed to realize was that the separation signaled the loss of more than just a partner of 3.5 years – it demarcated the first instance of my deviation from the predescribed life path and my abrupt removal from the pre-existing framework within which I had unwittingly wrapped myself from the second I made the decision to step on that airplane in O’Hare and never look back.

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Up until graduation I toed the line and my “progression” was assured, measured, analyzed, critiqued and reviewed, one essay, test paper, final and grade level at a time. You did what you were told and the issue of “what to do next” was always automatically presented to you at the end of every semester. Upon leaving and jumping on that plane to Japan, even if we were in different cities and of on again, off again status, she was going to be the guide. It was her country after all, and I had made my decision as such. “Lead me” I thought, and I will work hard, and perhaps one day we can have everything we both want.

But that happiness I thought it would bring – what I suppose is the capital “H” variety – was – and is – illusion. I thought I could have that with her, here, but what I really thought was “I can accomplish a goal that I set out for myself”. It is that sense of satisfaction that we get from achieving something that is perhaps so often confused with “Happiness”. But if those goals are ultimately meaningless, or their criterion ultimately arbitrary – is this happiness any “truer” than the swell of false emotions imposed upon us by an “A” on a report card or a “well done” scribbled across the front of an essay pamphlet?

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A friend of mine recently got into SIPA (Columbia School of International and Public Affairs) and while I was obviously very happy for her – the lowercase “h” variety – something she said at the end really made me think – struggling to quell her enthusiasm after the fervor of the initial pronouncement died down, she noted “I guess it’s one of those things where no one else can ever be as happy about it as you yourself”.

Is that real happiness – the capital “H” kind – I wonder? Does it signal some fundamental shift in the fabric of our existence, a benediction disguised as a neatly typewritten letter in 14 point Times New Roman on medium weight watermarked ivory paper? And if so, why? Is it the promise of what illustrious future we might have if we attend said school? The so-and-so average increase in square footage of our future house, the number of jumps we’ll make in a tax bracket, the increase in the thread count we can afford for our bedding, the class of mate we can attract, the number of cars in our driveway, doors a name will open, journal articles we can author? Is that capital “H” happiness nothing but the sum total of material possessions and accumulate manifestations of the physical?

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Or is that acceptance letter just another small “h” garden variety happy – a rather large one judging from the beautiful smile on her face – but still a fleeting instance nonetheless?

I don’t know the answer to this, and I suspect she doesn’t either, but the fact remains that if happiness is truly tied to the satisfaction of achieving a preset goal, then a fundamental reason for my feelings of disconnect is the lack of distinct goals on my part.

After the first year when I broke up with M for good, I struggled with the question of whether to recontract for another year or else go back to America. After all, the reason why I had come to Japan was gone and in its place lay nothing but an empty vacuum and a well of uncertainty. Why stay? To what end? What goal or purpose in sight?

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There was none, but I stayed anyway, and in a way I’ve been lost ever since then. Certain people try to persuade me to return to the states – convinced in their blissfully simple world view that what afflicts me can be remedied simply by settling down in a suburb somewhere, marrying a random white woman and rising through the ranks of faceless company ltd. in middle America. The flaw with that plan is that it assumes that true happiness is predicated solely on the achievement of a goal – any goal – and that desire, emotion and personality never enter the picture. Set a goal for yourself, achieve it, and happiness will follow, apparently.

If I was still in the states it’s entirely plausible I might have followed that advice, but since coming to Japan – and leaving that safety net aside with M – I’ve come to the realization that actually setting a goal – hell, even thinking of a goal is an undertaking not to be tackled lightly. If you live in the middle of Wisconsin where your choices are limited to working in a factory or as a mid level manager in a box company, setting goals is easy enough, but once you get outside the country for a while, you realize that quite literally, you can do anything in the world if you set your mind to it.

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“The problem is choice” someone said to me recently, unwittingly parroting one of the few scenes in The Matrix that didn’t involve explosions or bullet dodging super Agent programs with samurai swords – if you have too much choice, you can get paralyzed and stuck in the debilitating vise of inertia. But what is the alternative? Rush the issue, pick an arbitrary goal and start on with the false illusion of “real life” thinking that you’re working towards some form of “happiness” when in fact all you’ve done is build the rest of your life on a card house of lies and set the stage for a disastrous mid-life crises 10 years down the line?

While no one really knows, there are times when I feel real happiness – the capital “H” kind, if it exists – can’t be rushed. It comes when it comes, inspiration strikes you when it chooses, purpose appears when the time and conditions are right, and while I don’t mean to imply that we should adopt a laissez-faire attitude vis-a-vis our futures, sometimes there is nothing wrong with a little jikan tsubushi. It can be hard when you see everyone back in the states well into the middle of their “real jobs” or friends continuing on to graduate school, or have to wake up and go to work in the mind numbing paralysis of the Japanese system every day, but sometimes a little sadness is the price you have to pay in order to ensure that if or when the chance for real happiness – the capital “H” kind comes along – you’ve not already thrown your lot in with something fleeting and false because you couldn’t bear to wait another few years. Sold your inheritance for a bowl of porridge, to make a biblical allusion.

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Five years ago, when I first came to Tokyo, I remember one particularly gorgeous autumn day, M and I decided to on a whim to hop a local train and head over to Hakkone for the weekend.

I was sitting, leaning against the plastic board end of the train bench by the door (the best seats on any train) mp3 player filtering the sounds of BT’s “Flaming June” through the clacking of train wheels on shifting tracks underfoot, as I looked over at M, sitting, back primly poised, hair impeccably parted to one side, cream colored leather Coach handbag tucked to one side, keitai strap dangling loosely out one of the side pockets, makeup perfectly done, as always, beautiful lips pursed ever so slightly as manicured nails flicked pages of a book from one to the next, eyes moving ever so slightly through expertly applied mascara lashes, each iris twitch scanning top to bottom, right to left, page to page, ponytail bobbing slightly as each echoing shift of the train’s bulk rippled through the ground, through the wheels, through the floor, through the bench, through her body before manifesting itself in one tiny quiver, momentary separation of individual hair fibers, rippling shine reflecting the brilliance of the azure and topaz sky flitting by in the rows of houses cycling by in the background, melody line of children’s Doppler laugher fleeting by for split seconds as suffused imagery of suburban bliss melted into a motion streaked blur of scene behind us, parallaxing through windows and the smell of earth and coolness of autumn air cascading down inverted metallic slats of the old fashioned sun screens pulled down over half opened train windows, and I remember ginko leaves – beautiful, gorgeous stunning ginko leaves swirling through the air, striking yellow against austere brown branches silhouetted against topaz skies and this beautiful girl, this love of my life whom I had crossed oceans and continents to come be with, the smoothness of her hands, the delicate poise of her fingertip on the vibrating edge of the page transmitting the sinusoidal motions of the train platform underneath my feet, and she can feel my gaze and she looks up from her book ever so slightly, gorgeous brown doe eyes and its like the sun has shined on my face like it has never shined before and for one second my heart leaps and it’s a gap into silence, kaleidoscope explosions of brilliant yellow ginko leaves and cascading emerald of her sweater and I’m sitting at the kitchen table in this not so far off future, beautiful little children coming up to me dressed in adorable yellow duck hats and navy blue school uniforms with bright red randorsairu hardpacks filled with books bouncing on their backs, come to give me a kiss before work, before school and “dad where did you two meet” from the one in adorable Japanese and I smile and I look with love at her, and she at me and I start the tale, this one time, I met this girl and I loved her so much and she I, and I came across the ocean, across continents for her and I never knew how much I loved her until this gorgeous autumn day with swirling ginko leaves and yellow and blue on a gently swaying slow local train to Hakkone looking into her eyes…

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That was 5 years ago. I could have sworn to you that that very instance was the closest I have ever been to happiness – the real kind – in my entire life.

But now, what do I have? Nothing but faded memories, dimming recollections and a single line entry in my mobile phone address book. And even this too, this precious, precious moment of bliss and happiness which I keep treasured forever in my heart and in my mind, swirling ginko leaves and pungent smell of earth and loam carried on cool whispers of wafting autumn air and crushed blue fuzz of JR local train benches stroking each individual ridge of finger pads under hand – even this too shall fade into nothing and with each passing day I mourn a little more for its inevitable loss. And all that will be left will be hollow abstractions of something that I once knew to be profoundly important to me, and a dull ache in the vacuum where once it was and that too shall suffuse into naught, where at one time I could have sworn to you more than anything the truth of happiness once lay in my heart.

And if even this can have now crumbled to but the shifting shale of forgotten memories, what hope is there of real happiness in the future? Clearly I thought I had it before, but I was wrong.

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Killing time, biding time, passing time. Happiness remains – as ever – a most elusive thing.

Now listening to: “Paul Oakenfold – Greece 2000″

8 Reactions

  1. gwen

    aww panda…
    such a philosopher…
    for the last tear ive been beating myself up over a small buy crucial decision. igave up on what i saw as my happieness, i dont know if i was truely happy then, but ever since i changed B for A, i have felf some how empty…
    the only dreams i have now are about him, and in them i’m happy.
    A makes me happy, but when i dream, then i’m Happy, but i can never go back to that
    i think the only Happieness i’ll have is in my dreams, in my past.
    I hope you find yours in your future.

  2. Derek

    Panda,
    I would (silently) echo the sentiments of your critic but then I’m fully aware that I was only able to see that in you because I wasn’t happy myself at the time. The only thing I can offer is that, despite having similar reservations but a year ago regarding whether happiness would actually occur, I’m nearly happy now. It is feasible to expect a turnaround. How? Abandon negativity and cynicism, ego and pride and you’re about 80% of the way there! Easy Peasy! It sounds complicated but be yourself, basically, and do nothing on account of others expectation of you.
    Life in Japan can be alright, but there is a limit for most people but be careful not to make the common error of thinking you’ve had enough of Japan when you’ve really only had enough of your job.
    You’ll be fine, pal.

  3. moritheil

    Of course, sometimes life presents itself in varying degrees of sucktitude. So much memory, so much detail . . . and where does it go?

  4. andrew

    Well if you care what I think (and so many people dont) but Happiness is not something dependant on situations, people or circumstances.
    really Happiness is an attitude. Maybe monkah would say “joie de vivre”.
    Sure you can get temporary elation by getting your way, meeting that special someone etc.
    But it is really fleeting. It is what advertisers try to sell you the idea of.
    I think I found really Happiness when I learned that it is ok for me to just be ok being me. (psycho bs to be sure)
    Take care

  5. Kittos

    I guess we all have to walk on this path of philosophy. Take good care of yourself and make life worthwhile.
    I miss those matsuris, always plenty of food!

  6. coolnahalf

    japan does that to you, huh? maybe it’s the weather and how it’s constantly changing on a whim leaving the people in it’s super-cold-melancholy or super-hot-hating-life wake.
    hey, i’d actually really like to visit your neck of the woods sometime before the next 5 months are up. i have no idea if you’d like to put me up, but if you would, i think it’d be a great time. you’d go down as my first internet friend.
    have a good spring break. come back from wherever it is you go a little bit more refreshedand ready tot ackle the ret of your time.

  7. online games

    there’s no harm in killing the time actually, its just that you also need to freshen things up…thats all…as the matter of fact, the earth turns slowly…no need to rush things up…lets wait for the next day and see what might happened…