Yesterday, I'd just gotten comfortable at my favorite table in my neighborhood Starbucks when I noticed two 70-somethings seated at the table next to me. Although they sat mere inches from one another, they communicated as if they were standing on opposite ends of a dark mountain tunnel.
"I'M WILLING TO GO FAR FOR GOOD CHICKEN," bellowed the gentleman in yellow pants on the left.
"YOU DO LOVE YOUR CHICKEN," agreed his companion, a man whose enormous black glasses made him look like a political cartoon.
I smiled at the poultry lover in a subtle I-like-chicken-too kind of way. Then I removed a fresh yellow highlighter from my pocket, took a sip of my latte, and began to read through the folder of interview notes I'd brought with me. I read one sentence before my concentration was interrupted.
"KNOW WHO HAS SURPRISINGLY GOOD CHICKEN?" queried the man with the glasses.
"WHO?" asked Yellow Pants eagerly.
"SWEAR TO GOD."
Yellow Pants couldn't accept this information. He did, however, agree the shrimp platter was second to none. Yellow Pants then went on to explain, in stupefying detail, the exact location of every good chicken restaurant within ninety miles of the Denver metropolitan area.
I put down my highlighter and began drumming my fingers on the table wondering how long the chicken chatter would continue. I looked around and noticed two men in dark suits sitting at a table on my right. They were tapping into their Palm Pilots, jotting notes onto a legal pad, and strategizing about an upcoming sales meeting. They were doing exactly what people are supposed to be doing at Starbucks: working.
As I listened to the older gentlemen on my left and the salesmen on my right it dawned on me that the biggest difference between retirement and the working years is the ability -- and desire -- to talk about chicken. At length. I wish I had time to think about chicken, I mutter to myself as I jam my folder into my briefcase and head off in search of a quieter table. But I'm busy. I have deadlines. I have to multitask whenever possible. Even my idle time is filled with projects and purpose.
Take running, for example. When I go for a run, instead of admiring the daffodils that are starting to push through the hard-packed winter dirt, I try to generate new story ideas and make sure I keep my heart rate at 70% of maximum for at least 25 minutes.
When I go to the dentist, instead of wasting time in the waiting room by reading about the latest celebrity breakup, I compare the allocation of my stock portfolio against the allocations suggested in Money magazine. No sense wasting a good 20 minutes.
I'm not like this person I know who just converted to part-time and now leaves work at one o'clock everyday to work on his golf game. If I took off at one o'clock, I'd expect myself to write a novel. Or learn Japanese. By dinner.
I didn't realize how bad this constant do-think-plan mentality was until last night when I found myself alone in a restaurant waiting for a friend. I didn't have a notebook so I couldn't jot notes or plan the next day's activities. I didn't have a cell phone so I couldn't check voice mail or leave impressive after-hours messages for my editors. I hadn't even brought a report or magazine to read.
So, I read the menu. Four times. I looked out the window. I read the menu again. I asked for a glass of water. I read the menu again. I checked my watch. I started to sweat and within the space of minutes, I'd wrapped my arms around my waist and begun to take deep sucking breaths like a drug addict curled in a darkened corner of an abandoned warehouse.
By the time my friend arrived fifteen minutes later I was utterly disconsolate. Not because she was late but because I'd been forced to spend fifteen minutes -- 900 whole seconds -- idle and alone with my thoughts. There were things I could have been doing, should have been doing. But I went to the restaurant unprepared. The time had been wasted.
After I explained my dismay to my friend -- who was not nearly as apologetic for her tardiness as I thought she should have been -- she looked at me and asked, gently, "Why did you think you had to do anything? Quiet time is good thing, you know."
And then it dawned on me. The ability to cogitate on things like chicken and Red Lobster are not a side effect of one's employment status; they are a function of one's perspective. My friend was right: idle time is not wasted time. Taking time out, even for 15 minutes, allows you to reflect on your life, generate new ideas and appreciate things like chicken and the many ways it can be cooked and how many other animals, when cooked, taste like chicken. It's why people take vacations and have Sundays off and why there are wonderful things in the world like books and plays and champagne and hiking trails. Idle time may not be good for our careers, but it's essential to our souls.
So here's my challenge: for the next week try to take time every day to be alone with your thoughts. Hide your to-do list. Turn off the radio in your car. Look at the clouds. Go to bed a half-hour earlier without a book. Do something because, well, just because. Then, when you've figured out how to be idle -- how to do or think or talk about anything that pleases you even for a brief amount of time every day -- let me know how it goes. I'll be with the two old guys at this great new chicken restaurant down the street.
Copyright, 2005, Shari Caudron.
Shari Caudron is an award-winning columnist, writing coach, and author of "What Really Happened," a collection of humorous stories about the lessons life teaches you when you least expect it. Shari regularly delivers speeches to women's groups about how to transform ordinary experiences into opportunities for personal growth.