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Time/Out

I think that Paris may be a conspiracy to make you forget about time. Somehow I’ve forgotten to worry about or even think about it. It’s funny how time works: A whole summer of time makes you go crazy with boredom, but an hour to finish a paper kills you with stress.

Through most of my life, time has been a source of anxiety. I worry too much about it for my own good. I fret about it passing too quickly, about becoming old, about failing to accomplish what I had dreams about accomplishing.

In my nightmarish vision of time, its embodiment is less a kindly old father than a grim reaper claiming back my childhood little by little; the wise elders of my family have passed on, and the cousins I pretended to be spies with have fiancées and jobs and babies on the way. It’s crazy and weird. Hilary Duff has a kid, and though I should be happy for her, I am sad for myself: wistful for the childhood that was once, and never will be again.

Alex, you say rightfully, stop being so melodramatic. Time isn’t that bad. And besides, if we didn’t have limits on time, then would not life be monotonous and meaningless? Yes, I would have to concede, you’re right.

In Paris, time seems to move differently than it does in Palo Alto. Maybe some of you have mastered the art of time management, but I, alas, have not.

When the experts talk about time management it always seems they’re talking about being able to do your assignments on time without procrastinating, but I think it’s much more complicated and difficult than that. Granted, I still have problems with procrastination, but my bigger problem is that I just can’t seem to crack a balance between doing work and living life.

The more last year went on, the more I became a slave to the dominant (albeit unspoken) mentality at Stanford, one that is part caveman, part stock trader: WORK = GOOD. NOT WORK = BAD. If I wasn’t doing work, I was feeling guilty about not doing work, like the paranoid dude in a psychological horror movie: Unread emails haunted her mind like discontented ghosts, and with the fanaticism of a mad philosopher scribbling aphorisms, she scrawled out pointless to-do list after to-do list.

I’m curious: if someone had done a brain study of my brain during that time, what would they have found? What would be the ratio of actual thinking to thinking about how I should be thinking?

The worst was definitely the weekends. How many times did I scratch my plans for Half Moon Bay or San Francisco because I had a little too much work? Sigh. Too many. If I went to a concert on a Tuesday night I felt like a kid playing hooky– even though that hardly made sense. Wasn’t I in college? An adult? By now, hadn’t I earned the right to decide whether I could go to a concert or do my homework?

Of course, it was all in my head. My professor wasn’t going to put me in a corner with a dunce cap. At worst, I would get a bad grade and it would melt in with all the other ones and my GPA, and then what would come of that? Would it even make it to my resume? And if it did, would the reader see the blood sweat and tears or merely a number? Would an artist even ask for a resume?

My anxieties about how I used my time only magnified my fundamental fear of time. But just when I was ready to write off a truce, I came here, and I realized that time is incredibly relative.

One of the most beautiful things about Paris is that you can be completely busy and accomplish absolutely nothing. As the writer Adam Gopnick eloquently put it, “In Paris, Americans achieve absorption without obvious accomplishment, a lovely and un-American emotion.” Indeed, it’s as if Paris is set up to make you forget about using time “productively.”

Take the cafe experience: You can sit at a table for hours, writing or reading or simply gazing at the people drifting by. Eventually, when you do want to leave, you might find it difficult to flag down your waiter for the check. Some might mistakenly call this culture one of leisure, but that does it a disservice. It’s much more meaningful than that: All that nothing is full of everything. We turn back into philosophers, thinkers and dreamers again.

What I really love about Paris, and why I suspect so many artists make their homes here, is that unlike so many westernized and westernizing parts of the world, in Paris, time very much stands still. No one’s asking you to be anywhere or deliver a product. Design thinking, for all its outward appearance of creative spontaneity, is still ultimately driven towards producing a concrete idea that will lead to a concrete product. In Paris, there is art for art’s sake.

The metros are plastered with adverts for experimental plays and art exhibits, many of which are funded by the French government, which places a high precedence on supporting the arts as a staple of national pride. Maybe it is a conspiracy of sorts, but if it’s the government we’re talking about, it’s kind of the most awful way to encourage hard work: For in Paris, it’s as if you become so distracted with art and beauty that you forget about accomplishing something, or why that was ever important in the first place.

All you need is a friend to chat with and enough money to buy yourself an espresso, and if you can snag a subsidized ticket to a show or a pass to the Pompidou, you’re set. In Paris, it’s not hard to see art. It’s everywhere, and if it’s not behind closed doors then it’s in the metro: via the man peddling his voice for change, the hipster art history majors with their Doc Martens, the spacey bohemian artists with their dyed and wild hair. You see, I’ve learned it’s much easier to forget about time when the people around you have forgotten about it too.

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