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Sunday, March 18, 2012

COUNTERPOINT

There may be no time like the present — but the present's no time at all


Special to The Japan Times

"Japan is so small: What's the hurry?" This catchphrase, from a road-safety campaign in 1973, was created to help Japanese people slow down. In those days it was common to see drivers racing up to lights, people sprinting through a station to catch a train, or running and dodging down a sidewalk so as not to "miss" a crossing light.

That was the year when the Oil Shock shook Japan up after some Arab nations embargoed oil sales to countries that had expressed support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War.

In consequence, the price of oil rose 70 percent, to $5.11 (!) a barrel, and just as they had in the 1930s, Japanese people again realized how vulnerable their country is, resource-wise. Consumers stormed shops to stock up on toilet paper. Salarymen worked like the devil till all hours of the night. Nobody would give you the time of day, because, simply, nobody had it.

All of this came rushing back to me recently when I heard a "Talk of the Nation" program on U.S. National Public Radio. I listen to that program Tuesday to Friday starting at 4 a.m. Sometimes you have to get up pretty early in the morning to get a jump on the world.

The guest on March 2 was Allan Lokos, author of a fast-selling book titled "Patience, the Art of Peaceful Living." On air, Lokos declared: "As to time, in any given day we get the same amount. ... There's not much point in pleading for more."

Oh yeah? Who's he kidding? Whose day is he talking about? Not mine. Some of my days last about 86 hours; others swim by like Ian Thorpe in a fish tank.

But as for not pleading for more time, I agree. We shouldn't plead for more time. We should demand it. It is our right — and this includes you, dear reader, sitting or reclining or curled up as you run your eyes over this — to have more time in a day.

Let me be specific. Last month I was in Canberra. It took me nearly 10 hours to get to Australia from Japan, but I saw four movies and two documentaries, and I also read a duty-free magazine from cover to cover. There were no flies on me in that plane.

Anyway, in Canberra I was in a car that entered a huge parking lot adjacent to a shopping center. I saw there, for the very first time, an ingenious invention. Each lane of the car park had a digital sign over it indicating how many spaces were in the lane. Not only that, but over every space was a light that was either green or red depending on whether the space was occupied or not.

This is something we must have in Japan. Right this instant! I cannot begin to count the number of hours of my life I have lost winding around parking lots in search of a space — not to mention the gasoline used, the rubber rubbed off my tires and the fact that every wasted minute costs me more at the exit. And then there's the rage I feel at people who steal my space — yes, steal ! - which no doubt adds to my bills at the drugstore as well.

Similarly, I urge any tech-savvy reader to seize the day and devise a way of knowing which line at the supermarket checkouts is going to move the fastest. I tell you, I sometimes feel unashamedly postal inside when I change lines, often up to three or four times, only to deprive my life of even more precious minutes when I discover that I should have stayed in the first line in the first place.

To start the checkout ball rolling, here's an idea. First, the baskets or carts of each shopper in each line will need to be scanned to determine how long it will take for their contents to be dealt with at the cash register. Second, a profile of every employee at each cash register should be fed into a computer; after all, some of them are simply faster at their jobs than others. Third, imponderables such as how long it will take someone to extract their credit card or lots of little coins will be factored in by profiling shoppers by age, the presence or absence of arthritis in their wallet hand, etc. Additionally, any item that might cause a shopper to query its price will have been tagged in that initial digital scan — and two minutes for such items will be added to "line time."

Finally, the waiting time for each cash register will be shown on a screen. In this way, shoppers in a hurry will know which line to choose. Easy as pie. Really, I am surprised no one has thought of this before.

Writing in the Huffington Post, author Allan Lokos has said, "There are endless possibilities for becoming irritable with self, and in a given moment, they can all seem absolutely justified."

I'm not talking here about becoming irritable with self. I can deal with that. It's irritability with other people that sticks in the craw, particularly with old arthritic ladies who think an avocado costs ¥77 when it really costs ¥79 ! Without them around, my life would be a breeze.

What I really can't stand, though, is people telling me to take my time all the time. What's so good about taking your time? When the waiter informs you that your order will take 15 minutes to prepare, make a point of tossing your cloth napkin obtrusively on the table and dashing out to the nearest fast-food joint. Don't let them get away with robbing you of your rightful amount of time on this planet.

When your girlfriend or wife sweetly says to you, "Won't you take a little more time — please," you naturally shoot back with, "But the big game kicks off in 30 seconds!" Make sure she gets her priorities right before she leaves you for a guy who prefers playing footsies to watching football.

Let's cut to the chase.

My real ax to grind is with computers, mobile phones, iPads and other "time-saving devices" — boy, that's a misnomer if there ever was one.

The New York Times reported on March 1 that people tend to avoid websites that are 250 milliseconds slower than a competitor's site. Think of it. A millisecond may be only 1,000th of a second, but these add up. Lose a few here and a few there, and in the blink of an eye it's time for your first martini (not shaken or stirred, just drunk straight from the gin and vermouth bottles, one immediately after the other; stuff the olives, they take too long to get out of the jar).

The 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer often painted women reading or writing letters. In his day, it took up to two years for a letter to get from her to her husband in the colonies and back again. Two years to say, "Hi, w8 4 me, luv U2"? In addition, it's said that Vermeer took a year to paint some of his pictures — clearly a frightful waste of time.

At this rate, we're bound to lose all patience with time-servers like Vermeer — remember, he's just an old master — as well as with all mixed drinks, people who take more than 30 seconds to reply to a text message and nooky that conflicts with exciting sports events.

Whoever it was who said that there is no time like the present knew what they were talking about. But even the present is ceasing to exist right before our very eyes — and I say, good riddance to it. Let's get to the future as fast as we can.

It's sometimes said about going through a small town that if you blink you won't know you've been through it. That's true of life, too. Only time will tell if you've had one or not.



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