Why Natural Time Rules and Clock Time Sucks
Time is a construct and so if I was a member of the Village People I’d be the construction worker.
Because I’m always playing with Time, always pondering it, wondering how I can use it more efficiently, asking it for permission to release me from the Clock, which sometimes crawls slower than a turtle on high-grade heroin, and other times races faster than an antelope on pure, golden Masshole methamphetamine.
In fact, over two decades ago in my mid 20s, I made a deal with the Universe: I want to live for Time, not Money. And because of that, Time is one of those things I feel I can write about with some expertise.
Which is why I think this essay is worth your time. You see, I’m starting to get a distinct sense that our modern culture is going to be facing some rather key decisions about Time in the coming years. I think the Coronavirus and the reaction to it are only the beginning of this. But I’ll save a more Big Picture perspective for a future essay.
Today, I want to focus on my personal experience with this clash between what I call Clock Time, which is a human construct, and Natural Time, which is not.
Shall we begin?
How My Natural Time Conflicted with Clock Time
In the past few months, I often find myself in an uncanny sync with Time. I get around by bicycle and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve effortlessly arrived at my destination to when whatever podcast, music or audiobook I was listening to ended within seconds of me pulling to a stop.
I’m not making any effort to do this; not looking at the length of what I am listening to and figuring out how long it will take me to get to my destination and then trying to sync things up. No, it just happens.
This is why the vice-principal at the Japanese junior high school I work at needs to take a chill pill and, umm, chillax. (The variety of chill pills available over the counter here in Japan seem sorely lacking compared to my home state of Washington where weed is now legal to the point of it growing out of the ears of my father).
You see, on the day this tale begins, I had a rare day where I had no classes so I decided to take it a bit slower on the bike ride in.
Now, when I take it slow, my friends, that usually doesn’t mean I’m lollygagging. No, my mind is as active as a sea serpent on the Orient Express to Jupiter, so on the way in I took the beautiful photo you see below this paragraph, recorded the intro to my second official podcast episode of the week and listened to the two chapters of my novel that are included in said podcast.
So it wasn’t like I was farting my way to Philadelphia. I was busy.
And yet …
About 15 seconds before reaching the school, the chapters of my book ended so I knew I was, again, right on Natural Time.
Unfortunately, the vice-principal is a man who seems obsessed with Clock Time. So in what may have been something approaching a panic worthy of a mother dealing with a melting down kid waiting in a line at a McDonald’s, he actually called my house and asked my wife: Just where in the Hell is your lazy ass, indolent husband who works for me?
Now, before I go on, let me be clear: I work in Japan. So every bit of dialogue I will refer to henceforth was said in Japanese. That phone call I just quoted though? Verbatim. (If you believe that…)
So I’m sneaking in (I ain’t giving away how) and my phone starts to buzz in my bag. I think it must be the weekend job that my contract says I’m not allowed to do (listen to this podcast episode to understand this nonsense!) because those people also tend to panic about Clock Time and I’m supposed to call them by the end of the workday just to tell them not to worry, that I am actually going to show up on time for a gig on Saturday, something I’ve never failed to do in over 10 years of working for them.
So I let the fucking annoying phone ring. You see, I have a rule for people in my life: don’t call me. Unless it is a big fucking emergency.
However, as I’m trying to sneak by the window that my vice principal looks out onto, I have an intuition it might be him calling.
But no, I get to the locker room to put my bag away and check and find out it’s my wife. Did my stay-at-home, rebellious-yet-totally-awesome 14-year-old son throw another hammer in her direction?
“Where are you?”
“At school,” I say. “Kuragano Junior High School.”
“Huh?” (My wife can be hard of hearing for some reason.)
I say it again, this time in Japanese and louder.
“The vice-principal there is calling for you. Are you late?”
“Nope, I’m right on time,” I say, and, thinking the call is done, I press the disconnect button as I hear her start to say something else.
Oh well. She’ll call back. But only if it’s a big fucking emergency, of course.
Now, we all have different definitions of things and my definition of emergency is quite different from the Japanese one. But I don’t think the VP thought this was an emergency.
You see, he’s a pretty good guy. He’s usually able to laugh with me about silly shit, such as how, after I mailed in my Washington state primary election ballot I told him that the world deserved to be woken from the four-year fart storm that has been the Trump presidency.
Oops, perhaps your politics differ from mine (in fact, I’d bet they do; if I were king for a day, I’d declare all days a public holiday henceforth and require all humans except for men over the age of 46 to parade around naked every Saturday in August).
Anyway, the VP is generally pretty chill.
But one of the jobs the VP has in Japan is to be the disciplinarian. And a Japanese teacher’s room (and office in general, I believe) has no cubicles because, in a culture that is more focused on the collective than the individual, cubicles ain’t a thing. I’m somewhat okay with this, but in the case of trying to walk to one’s desk “late” without making a scene, well, I wish they had them.
Here’s how it went down.
VP: “What happened?”
Me: “It’s okay.”
(Apologies, but another aside and this really does need explaining because Japanese and English are very different and after 15 years I still don’t have a great grasp on the nuances. I answered “daijoubou” and my meaning was, “It’s okay.”
But one of the key features of Japanese is, especially in spoken Japanese, people often don’t say the subject of a sentence so a direct translation would be “Okay” though I think by the way I said it, he understood it as “It’s okay, partner, take that chill pill!”
Because if I’d answered with a different tone, he might have thought I meant “I’m okay” and then figured I was interpreting his question as being one of concern for my material well-being rather than an admonishment of my tardiness. Got it? No, neither do I.)
No matter, he understood me correctly and I understood him, too, so he said: “No, it’s not okay.”
Me: (putting my bag on my desk, pondering my response, calculating not to look him in the eye for I don’t want or need this to be a confrontation) “Well, I don’t have any classes today — “
VP: “That doesn’t matter … (something something something)”
I didn’t hear that trifecta of something’s because he’s wrong, it does matter, the only reason I need to be here on Clock Time is if I have a class or if I’ve made a promise to someone to be on time for some sort of work I’m helping them with.
But nope, all I had to do was make a worksheet for my final third-grade class, which isn’t even for another week so I’m being diligent in doing it on this day. It’s a task that’ll take an hour or two and I’m on a seven-hour day.
37 minutes and 31 seconds late or whatever doesn’t matter (unless the Clock Time Accountant, pictured below, has temporarily stolen back my kingship for the day.)
However, the VP is fulfilling his role as disciplinarian and without those cubicles, he’s doing this in front of about six other teachers so this is now The Show for everyone.
I decide that this conversation has gone on way too long — he’s wasting my Natural Time — so I put my hand up in his direction in a sort of gentle, but also an I-wanna-be-done-with-this-and-so-should-you way, all while still emptying my bag and preparing for actual work, and I say: “Okay, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
And that ends it.
I keep unpacking and then I’m thinking about it: I’m pretty sure in American culture unless your boss was a dick, he wouldn’t do that in front of everyone, but in Japan, such things are done not only to reprimand the individual but to tell other individuals not to do this.
That’s all fine, but Japanese folks are, IMHO, too obedient and complacent to even consider being 37 minutes and 31 seconds Clock-Time late, so his show really is for nothing. It’s just for me.
But dude … for 15 years, this Board of Education has re-hired me every year (we have a one-year contract). Why? Because except for one year when my principal was a miserable asshat who hated everyone, I’ve gotten an excellent evaluation, usually with the comments that I am hard-working and liked by everyone.
Unfortunately, it seems that the relationship to Time is changing, becoming tighter, and for me to explain that I need you to hop into my Time Machine.
Are you strapped in? Good, let’s go!
The GOD (G.ood O.le D.ays) Era (2004–2012…ish)
I don’t want to cause people stress. And this is one of the reasons I am going to become a freelance worker at the end of March. Because since I started this job as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in 2004, I’ve watched as the people enforcing the System have become more uptight regarding Clock Time.
And since I work for Time, not money, this is a big problem for me.
You see, in my first year, 2004, during the usual six-week summer vacation, people in my job had this responsibility: We were to go to our city’s City Hall around 8:30 and stay there for an hour or two. Usually, around 9 our supervisor would come in, check if we were all there, we’d say we were, he’d chat for a minute and then leave.
And after he left, we could leave. And then we were free the rest of the day, no need to take vacation time.
Okay, so that was in 2004.
Flash forward to…
The DOG (D.aily O.fficious G.rind) Era (2012ish to Present)
During summer vacation in these D.O.G. days, we are required to go to our schools for seven hours and if we want to leave, we have to use vacation time.
Please understand, we’ve got very little to do. Even the Japanese teachers, who are much busier (and better paid) than us ALTS, are not too busy (I’ve seen many reading novels, napping, playing Solitaire on their computers and taking very long lunches).
But the point is, ALT’s got almost nothing we have to do.
Why do you think I spent like 60 hours coloring the shit out of this map pictured below? Because I had to be there and, well, listening to an audiobook, podcast or music while coloring rules.
But I digress.
In addition to that, sometimes we have seminars throughout the year. In the G.O.D. era, once the seminars were done, we were free to go, no need for vacation time. And the seminars were really chill.
In the D.O.G. era, we have official, regimented conferences, with speeches, or events, or occasional topless jugglers. Please understand, we do enjoy those jugglers.
And we actually learn more for our job than we ever did in the G.O.D. era, which usually consisted of our boss re-visiting his own G.O.D. era when he was a teacher and not a guy in a suit overseeing a bunch of rabble-rousing foreigners by teaching us random stuff about Japanese culture.
Anyway … the D.O.G. years began, and suddenly when those fascinating meetings were over, we were told if we didn’t go back to our schools, we needed to use our vacation time.
For several years I found ways to skip around this by just not filling it out on my time card and never being called on it.
Then, probably two years or so ago, I decided to start living with a bit more integrity and just fill those things out, but again, even then it was a pain in the arse because do you consider commute time, etc., etc., and really, what’s the fucking point of Clock Time?
Well, there is a point. For example, public transportation. In Japan, the trains always run on time. So you can count on them and that’s generally a good thing.
However, I can see myself enjoying life in a less Clock-Time-obsessed culture where trains aren’t on time because it sounds a lot more easygoing and I doubt folks like my VP exist.
All that said, as I think this crazy essay can attest, I am a guy who keeps busy and likes to manage and play with my Time efficiently so I do think I prefer the idea of trains, boats, and airplanes leaving on time.
Score one for Clock Time.
But in this job? Nah.
My Deal With the Universe: Let Me Work for Time, not Money
Flashback to — fuck it, I ain’t taking the time to come up with another fancy acronym — a hot summer day in 1997. I’m stuck on the 101 Freeway in the sweltering San Fernando Valley with no A/C on my way to my job at the Los Angeles Daily News, and I have a Michael Douglas “Falling Down” moment.
Don’t get the reference, Millennial? Not to worry, it’s a pretty good, I’ve-had-it-with-the-System 1990s movie which opens with Douglas abandoning his car in L.A. traffic, just walking off the side of the freeway to set off on a quest to … no spoilers, you say? Gotcha. Watch it!
So there I was and I was gonna be late for work but it wasn’t my fault, traffic was waaaaay slower than normal, so I got off the freeway and heard the real GOD in my head, voice booming in James Earl Jones timbre: Go to the mountains! NOW!!
Never one to ignore Burning Bush moments, I drove for 15 minutes and then found myself on the side of the road, looking up toward the hazy L.A. sky and saying: “Universe, I want to live for Time, not money.”
(Now, 2020 Bryan knows I can work for both, but at the time I was rebelling against the American cultural M.O. that the goal of Life is money, partly because I’d known enough rich people to see that in many ways, most were more stressed and unhappy than us regular Joes and Janets).
And so when I got this job in 2004 and found myself in a GOD era, I was in hog heaven. (Do animals get their own separate heavens? If not, why do we say hog heaven?)
But not anymore. No, in the D.O.G. days, it seems like year-by-year people are stressing out more and more about Clock Time when there’s no need for it. And it’s causing them mental trouble and causing me mental trouble when I am expected to follow it when I can see it is not necessary.
You see, what the VP doesn’t get is that, like most middle-aged people in Japan, especially those with kids, I’m on Clock Time a lot. And it gets tiring. So when I have a day when my job allows me to be off Clock Time, I want to just follow Natural Time for 37 minutes and 31 seconds.
Is that too much to ask?
Because when I do that, as I wrote way back at the start of this essay, I’m usually right on Natural Time.
So yeah, I’m sorry to cause my vice principal stress, but I also know I can’t take all of the responsibility for the stress he is causing himself. What I can do is write about topics like this and perhaps help others who are like my VP recognize ways they can relax about Clock Time.
In closing, I promise that I will continue to write about Time and how to be more in sync with Natural Time. I think it’s going to be a topic that will be more and more on the minds of people as this crazy decade progresses.
For now, thanks for being a super Time Trooper and giving me so much of your precious time to read this time-sucker of a post and, as always, if you feel so compelled, take some time and give me some feedback.
Thanks for reading! You can support me simply by sharing my stuff, by linking to me on Twitter, by checking out my old blog, by listening to my new podcast, The B&P Realm Podcast, or by reading my 2015 novel, “The Teacher and the Tree Man.” You can also find that book in full here, or you can find it broken down into four shorter books (book 1, book 2, book 3 and book 4).