Searching for a Perfectly Useless Afternoon:
If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.
Lin YuTang’s prescription for learning how to live turns out to be some hard shit. Getting to satisfaction, contentment, fulfilment, whatever you want to call the absence of restlessness—for a lifetime, for a year, for an afternoon—is surely the most elusive of human sentiments. Perhaps the easiest to conceptualize, but the hardest to make real.
I usually find myself in these situations. It’s early Saturday night and I’m sitting in a dim restaurant. It’s tundra conditions in here, but slightly warmer than outside. No heat and the few humans scattered around the room are layered up and very much dressed for the deep freeze. Behind me, a young man in a puffy yellow coat eats a bowl of steaming noodle soup. A big, old, time-ragged woman, the proprietress, sits in the corner, idly watching the straightforwardly titled Chinese version of American Idol—I am a Singer. What appears to be the establishment’s lone space heater is directly trained on her and she looks fat and happy, the warm bastard. Across from me is a friend and to my left is a small, old, time-ragged man—the proprietress’s husband. My friend and I are eating some dishes and drinking baijiu out of cheap plastic cups. My friend, who is starting to get drunk, keeps offering to pour the old boss— who is dressed like a winter-worn Maoist revolutionary—a shot. And, I swear to god, the old SOB, with a straight face, uses a different one line excuse each time.
“I have a cold.”
“High blood pressure.”
“I don’t drink.”
“Too old, too old.”
“Drank too much last night.”
The whole scene gets me in that whimsical-can’t-keep-the-smile-down sort of way—the look that’s on my face all day every day in this idiosyncratically bizarre country. It’s all so Chinese and the fact that I’m sitting here in this phenomenally Chinese situation and have done so a hundred times over before is whimsically hilarious to me. And these days I can actually talk to these people and take part in the moment—be a full participant—and the whole scene is just so mind-blowing and fills my chest up like a balloon.
And I think, could I live here forever? I remember having this thought when I lived in a little village on a hillside in Southwestern China. Hardly a day goes by when I am not happy, not curious, not learning, not being filled up like a balloon with whimsical excitement. Rarely does a day go by when I think about money. I so infrequently encounter pretense and bullshit. There is a permanent wtf grin on my face. I remember thinking, really going in on the thought, that I could live in that village for the rest of my life and be perfectly content. I feel that way now, in this cold, dusty kitchen with tables.
The thing about contentment and satisfaction is that we refuse to view them as absolute concepts. This is why it is almost humanly impossible to spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless way. This is something only gods can do. We are always pondering how we can be more content than we are. Even if we are seriously fucking content, a thousand pillows and a down blanket, crackling fireplace with a beautiful person content, we will almost invariably contemplate the ways in which we could be more content. It’s quite well-documented that there is no threshold available to human beings in which total fulfillment exists. We have entire religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity (basically every religion)—whose primary raison d’être is the notion of release from the affliction of grass-is-always-greener-itis—the idea that once you boof it out of your human existence, you will wind up in a place where you are utterly satisfied. This is the highest honor to be conferred upon adherents—the ability to spend a useless afternoon uselessly, guiltlessly.
So afraid are we of the fo-mo-istic notion that there’s something better, we always think we could be doing more, achieving more. Every time I have nothing to do, I ask myself why. How did I fuck up so bad that I have nothing to do? There’s always more. I can’t just take a shower. I must listen to a podcast whilst taking a shower. That will improve the quality of the shower. It’s not enough to have Vietnamese and Brazilian and Polish restaurants on this street. It won’t truly be complete without a Honduran pupuseria. I can’t do this thing this afternoon. Why should I do this thing when there are so many other things I could do. And shit, I just saw this unfiltered Instagram post and Joey J is hiking the Inca Trail with his fiancée and then there was that LinkedIn post from that girl who just got a job at Ropes & Gray and damn she must be making a shitload. I can’t do this thing when they’re doing that.
This is a problem reserved, of course, for the fortunate.
I used to have this conversation all the time with a close friend in college. This friend had chosen, rather early on, to have an arranged marriage. He would wait until marriage to have a partner, wait until marriage to do things that partners do with each other, like ride tandem bikes and shit. In some ways these types of decisions are religious, but in others they are psychological. If you are unaware of what you are missing, you will not know the relative quality of what you have. And you will be content, because you will know nothing but what you have. You are repressing yourself into contentment and happiness. Which is kind of what religion is all about anyways. The best way for an addict to stay clean is to never try heroin in the first place. If you don’t know, you can’t know.
And even back then when I was twenty years old and very interested in knowing about what I didn’t know about, I would agree with my friend and I still do. But, it didn’t matter to me, because I was already too far gone. Even if his theory was right, I had already rendered it not-applicable to myself many—like at least 5—times over. And you can’t unexperience. There is no apple-z for life.
The fact is, that even though I find my life stupendously pleasant in small-city China, I will never be able to shake free of what else. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If humans were incapable of shaking free of what else they wouldn’t be humans. They’d be cavemen. In caves. And their appendices would be digesting raw meat and they’d be bopping each other on the dome with wooden clubs. It's not a bad thing--I really don't mean to say it's a bad thing--it’s just a true thing. I can sit here and crack myself up endlessly over just the fact that I’m sitting here, smile til I close my eyes about the fact that I’m alive on the other side of the world in late 2017. But, the restaurant could have heat. The booze could not sting from tongue to stomach. The old man could be in perfect health and drink us both under the table and pump his fists and lift the old proprietress over his head and set her down and dance a flawless Tango on the concrete floor—which could be hardwood, of course—and she could sing a goosebump-inducing rendition of ancient Beijing Opera. It could be brighter in the restaurant. No chance. It’s great, it’s great, it’s great, but I could never live here for the rest of my life. I know because I know.