After dumping my rucksack in the hotel room my immediate thought was to find the internet connection and switch on my computer. But that’s what I always do, every day of the week. Since I was staying in a hotel, why not do something different with my time? Switching on my computer has become too automatic for me.
So I ran a bath and emptied two sachets of body soap into the water to make a poor man’s bubble bath. I lay there soaking with nothing much on my mind. No purpose, no goal. I started wondering if Richard Nixon was right that people without a purpose are generally miserable. I think he was talking less about people soaking in the bath than the idle rich who try keep ennui at bay with endless trivial entertainments.
In general I live in a way that Richard Nixon would have approved of. I nearly always have some goal over and above the simple pleasure of doing it though I am a little less sure than Richard Nixon was as to whether this is a good thing. Certainly Zen-convinced people think it is better to live in the present and stop planning and thinking so much? I find it hard to say if they are right or wrong but my natural inclination is to think ahead. Though I sometimes try to make myself stand and stare like sheep or cows? it goes against the grain.
I got out of the bath and dried myself. Lethargy after my bath made me want to lie down so I switched off the main light, left a small light on, turned back the covers and lay down on rather than in the bed. It was still only about 6pm and there was nothing I needed to do until breakfast the next morning. I was catching a British Airways flight from Tokyo to London at 11.15 am. My school had generously paid for the hotel, thinking that my apartment was too far from the airport and my flight too early.
Lying on my hotel bed I went in and out of consciousness for a couple of hours until I finally got up when I started to feel cold. I sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing my face and feeling lazier than ever. I needed to get something to eat before going to bed proper. Come on, move!
The receptionist in the hotel lobby said there was a convenience store in Terminal 1 which was just 10 minutes away on foot so out I went into the cold.
Brrrr! I zipped up my jacket and put on my hat. The walk itself was pretty depressing: roads, slip roads, junctions, flyovers, airport buses, lorries; no shops, no houses, no people. It was like an Edward Hopper painting but worse: a soulless concrete and asphalt wasteland lacking in human warmth.
In the airport terminal I asked an airport janitor where there was a convenience store. He almost bellowed the directions, perhaps wanting everyone, including his bosses, to know that though he had a humble job he too could assist foreign passengers. Or maybe he thought that’s how westerners speak: loudly.
I found a Lawson convenience store downstairs, bought a sandwich and a salmon rice ball and headed back up the escalator. I went back upstairs to the main area and ate the sandwich while sitting on a seat. The terminal was almost empty apart from another foreigner, a middle-aged man who I thought looked scruffily British. He had some kind of walking disability and a nasty cut or open sore on his head. He had the air of someone in a permanent daze. He walked over to a Japanese woman at a counter to make conversation with her. She was polite without wanting to encourage him to hang around her for long. I got the feeling this might not have been the first time he had approached her and she had learned from her previous mistake. What was he doing in the almost empty airport at this time with a cut on his head and looking so down-at-heel?
I got up and walked back to my hotel, making a pig’s ear of unwrapping the rice ball as I was walking. I can’t even do it while giving it my whole attention. In the end I ate the rice first and picked out the dried seaweed from the cellophane afterwards. The older I get the more things seem overly complicated.
Back in my hotel room I made a cup of tea, sat down in a chair and thought once again about switching on my computer. Again I decided this would only be doing so to distract myself. But distract myself from what exactly? From myself? From consciousness? From the bare fact of being alive and in a rather sceptic Japanese hotel room?
It seems to me that many things can be viewed either negatively or positively. Someone who is said to be gregarious and good with people might be less charitably described as in need company and ill at ease on his own. Steven Pinker, while looking like a brilliant scholar from a certain point of view might look ridiculously effete from the perspective of an MMA cage fighter.
Distracting yourself can also be viewed in two opposing ways. It could be a way of distracting myself from more thoughts about myself and daydreaming, a distraction I consider to be good. Or distraction could be no different from the way some people switch on the TV as soon as they get home so as not to feel alone. I have always viewed this in a negative light. So what is the difference between having the TV turned up so as to forget you are alone and switching on your computer so as to forget you are alone in a hotel room? None, as far as I could see.
If I were undergoing an operation in hospital I would want do be distracted. Induced sleep, games, books, anything to take your mind off what would otherwise be a painful and traumatic experiencing. I would also want to be distracted if I were being tortured, or if I just had to sit for 13 hours on a plane. Without on-board films, sitting upright in a cramped seat is a mild kind of torture. On the other hand, if I am enjoying myself why would I want to be distracted? So does this mean I find bare existence something mildly unpleasant; something I need to be distracted from?
Perhaps meditation is a way of trying to view would-be tormenting activities positively. With the right attitude most things are bearable. So maybe meditation is a way of learning to put up with the annoying stuff in life, which strikes me as being a useful skill to possess, though not one I can be bothered to acquire.
Though I should perhaps acquire it since so much annoys me: liberals expressing their smug opinions, people who use vocal fry, self-important westerners on Japanese trains who put their shoes on the seats in front of them though the locals themselves wouldn’t dream of doing anything so bad-mannered. People who don’t bother to acknowledge the waitress who is serving them, people who don’t get off their bloody mobile phones even when they reach the check-out, people who speak loudly on the mobile phones, badly-behaved children with stupid names, parents who look on indulgently as their stupidly-named children spoil things for everyone else, men who wear pajamas on planes, men who piss on the floor in the plane toilet and don’t clean it up afterwards.
Physical torments include hard chairs, mild hunger, mild cold, mild heat and my hands going numb at night. Avoiding all those things means avoiding most public places which are full of annoying people and hard chairs. Places like airports.
Still I didn’t switch on my computer. The need for distraction wasn’t yet at critical point. Instead I sat in a chair, drank my tea and looked around the room. It was clean and nice enough though the only way you could have felt at home was if you had grown up in the Eastern Bloc during the Brezhnev era. The beds were clean and the sheets crisp but the ceiling was discoloured, the air vent and the smoke alarm brown and sticky-looking. The light shade was decades old, its long dusty cable coiled around itself.
I knew several of my colleagues were staying in the same hotel because I had seen them checking in just before me. They had even been on the same airport train. I knew they worked for the same language school as me though I didn’t actually know any of them. Two or three of them had got talking on the train and at first I thought I had an urge to join them and exchange stories of what we had experienced over the last three months. But then I heard their talk and the temptation to join them left me. There was nothing wrong with the talk. It was just typical of English teachers abroad.
Now, hours later, I had the urge to seek them out and perhaps have a drink in the bar but first I would have to track them down and then get over that awkward threshold when I have to introduce myself. So I stayed in my room. They were probably all on their computers anyway.
So I continued to sit in the hotel chair and thought of Philip Larkin’s Mr. Bleaney, who used to lie on his bed in rented accommodation, shivering at the thought of his lonely life. A Nietzschean idea entered my head and I tried to imagine myself looking into the stained nylon carpet of the hotel room and it in turn looking back into me. But I couldn’t really imagine what Nietzsche was getting at and in reality the hotel room engendered in me nothing more oppressive than a vague sense of restlessness. So finally I switched on my computer.