I said to myself: “A fortnite already since I last saw Mme de Guermantes” (a fortnight, which did not appear so enormous an interval except to me, who, where Mme de Guermantes was concerned, counted in minutes.) — Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
I started running out of time on Tuesday morning. I rushed to Shibuya to get to an appointment, to lunch with a coworker, to finish my work at a cafe. I rushed home to eat, I rushed to do my reading for our Proust meeting so that I could rush to bed so that I could wake up and make the meeting, at the end of which I would rush to start work. That morning, I was running three minutes late, feeling guilty, opened Zoom, and stared at the black screen with just my name looking back at me. I checked the email to make sure I had the right link and realized the meeting was the following week.
John Mulaney has this bit about how, as far as instant relief goes, canceled plans are as good as heroin. I closed my computer. The sun was beaming through the window. One unexpected extra hour on a weekday morning blazed across my calendar with promise. What should I do first? Vacuum? Laundry? Christmas presents? Call someone? Meditate???
This one hour of time regained was just a sliver compared to the hundreds of hours I’ve spent reading and discussing Proust. But then, like the narrator, I’ve never been good at the management of time, nor expectations.
I have missed many boats. Also busses, trains. One flight.
There was the train to Udaipur. Stuck in traffic in New Delhi, I couldn’t bring myself to say to the auto driver, “I’ll pay you whatever it takes to get me to the train station on time.” But somehow he got the message, finding space between other rickshaws where there shouldn’t have been, and we darted through the ocean of vehicles toward the train station. Nonetheless, I watched the last car as it pulled away from the platform, plans dashed, money lost, imagining my friends sitting in their berths, laughing and throwing back chai with mirthful abandon.
A few months later, having learned my lesson, I was extremely on time for my train to Gorakhpur. (For reasons that will become clear, I’m never really early.) I arrived at the station only to find it was running four hours late. There had been so much nightmarish Delhi traffic on the way there that I was loathe to go back home and wait a few hours just to go through the process again. So I waited, exhausted, in the night. By the time the train finally came it was six hours late, the sky getting light. I passed out in the sleeper car and woke up to a bright new day. There was a jolly family occupying the beds around me, chatting and having chai. I was told we were running twelve hours behind.
I’ve been the last person onto a flight twice, sweating, grateful. But for every near-miss, I also have a memory of being punished for being punctual. Once on a flight to San Diego, the seatbelt check already over, I was absently flicking at the in-screen entertainment screen when I heard a flight attendant from behind me: “Oh no!” She hissed to another attendant. “I pushed down when I was supposed to push up!” I gathered she had confused “arm” the plane with “disarm,” and somehow the plane was now missing a door. Everyone was made to clear out, and we were shuffled back into JFK to await a new plane.
Thirty some odd years in, and I’m still learning everyday from the river of time. It teaches a recurring lesson about the karmic laws of tardiness. And still sometimes I feel no more informed than an ant before a god, at times rapt, at others pummeled.
A lot of things changed when I moved to Japan, but my dealings with time ranks at the very top.
Here, there is a time that things arrive, and there is a time that things depart. Imagine a transportation system so confident in itself that the timetables are published as PDFs. Things are so precise and punctual that domestic flights only require passengers to be at the gate 10 minutes before departure. (Ten. I took a screen shot and sent it to my friends.) If the train is behind schedule by more than 5 minutes, certificates of lateness are available at the station for passengers to show their bosses and teachers, so they don’t get penalized.
There was a sign hanging in my first Japanese school: “Please do not be late! In Japan, even 1 minute late is like being 10 minutes late.” I told this to someone in New York. “Ten minutes doesn’t seem that bad,” she said.
It’s very seductive. It means that if you do your part (leave the house exactly on time) you can expect with extraordinary precision that the system will reliably fulfill its duty (get you to your destination exactly on time). It also means that when you’re running late, there is almost no chance the train will also be. The margin of error is so slim that there is rarely a miracle of synchrony.
I’ve become so overly reliant on the machine working that there have been a few spectacular backfires.
That day I chose the most efficient route to Narita, believing that all the trains in the web would arrive and depart on time. And they did. What failed me was putting my faith in a third system: I realized as I heard the train depart without me on it that Google Maps had given me four minutes to make a transfer that it also said took seven minutes to walk.
I got to the airport with 44 minutes left before the flight, but the kiosk, another cog in the vast machine of expected precision, automatically stopped accepting check-ins at exactly 45 minutes prior to departure. A woman who worked for this admittedly very budget airline looked at me as, for not the first time in my life, I loudly and publicly beseech a suited service person in hysterical Japanese to make an exception. I could see the complete lack of sympathy behind her mask, her face saying: “You broke the contract. There’s nothing to be done.” I turned around, flattened by the system, and got on the train back home.
Still, even here I have evidence that punctuality karma keeps score.
In September I was in Aomori. I had hiked about 25 miles over three days. I was between two bus stops and knew that to catch the last bus of the day to my guesthouse, I wasn’t going to make it to the next stop. I needed to turn back. But the river beside me was rushing ahead, alive and powerful. The tree leaves waved and glistened with warm rain. I was tired, but calm. My feet refused to turn around; I kept moving forward.
More than an hour later I reached the end of the path, the bus long gone, and went to the train station to ask about calling a cab. There were no cabs, the attendant told me. To get to the guesthouse, it would be another 5.5 miles and two hours of walking with my pack on after the six I had just finished. I took a deep breath. Then she said, There’s a ferry. The last ferry of the day. She told me the departure time, and it slowly solidified in my tired mind as 16:00. We looked at the clock in unison. “It leaves in three minutes!” she said. She leaned out and shouted across the broad street. “Wait! A customer!”
I booked it across the road; a man told me with his white gloves that I couldn’t get on the boat; he ushered me into a separate building; he wanted to know where I was going, why I was getting on this boat; he confirmed my plan; the lone man in the booth sold me a ticket; I looked at my clock: 15:59. I got on the boat. We left the dock.
I plopped down on a bench. I looked around. On a boat with a capacity of 704 people, I was the sole passenger. I bought a hot coffee and stretched my legs in front of me, watching the water rush away from our path. For once, I had won the time lottery.
One night I was sitting with Bey complaining that I wasted too much time on Facebook. He took my computer and starting tinkering with it, then gave it back closed. When I opened the machine again, I saw a black screen with white digits rapidly counting down. To my estimated time of death, he explained.
If memory serves, this was a Memento mori plug-in meant to encourage users not to waste time on dumb shit. That was many years ago. I have since quit Facebook, but have also spent a lot of time on dumb shit.
Like most people, I often feel like I’m running out of time. But more and more it’s apparent that while the river can be unfathomably swift, alarmingly, terrifyingly so, there are also places it’s incredibly bloated, the water sludgy even. Time does run out; it also moves in. For Marcel in the throes of obsession, two weeks is counted in minutes. On a random Wednesday morning in December, an hour becomes a year. We make plans, then time cancels them for us. And then somewhere else in the system, something opens wide.