Saturday, July 13, 2013

Doing time

This post first appeared as a column in the Good Living section of The Press, Christchurch

Doing time

Ken Strongman

Being a retiree bears an uncanny resemblance to Alice having disappeared down the rabbit hole.  It’s to do with time.  At the best of times, time is a slippery concept.  On the one hand it can be measured with a degree of exactitude enough to excite a pedant.  I have no good notion of what an atomic clock is, nor how it might work, but it can certainly give those who want to know a very precise notion of what time it is.  Of course, the moment they know the time, that time  has changed so they can never quite capture the moment, at least not at a human level.  And herein lies the rub.

As a member of the work force one has to arrive at work at a particular time, give or take, usually give.  And one has to leave at a certain time, usually with a bit of take.  Appointments have to be kept roughly on time, a ten minute leeway being within acceptable limits in our culture.  But far more important than this is subjective time.  This allows some things to pass in a flash, time spent with particularly loved members of the family for example.  Whilst the same period of ‘objective’ time, with or without the atomic clock, can last interminably.

So, work is time driven and, after a decent period of adjustment, retirement isn’t.  Subjective time is to the fore. Getting up in the morning no longer has a sense of urgency, the morning newspaper seems longer than it once did, the days merge.  What day is it? becomes a frequent question.  This is not creeping senility, although such unwelcome analyses do sometime appear unbidden; it is simply that the days no longer have a distinctive flavor. To have the weekend be little different from the week takes some getting used to.  The tyranny of the clock is muted.

As time goes on, for go on it certainly still does, there can slowly develop a slight resentment of any appointment at all.  This tendency disturbs in many ways.  One does not want, for instance, to lose all standards and turn into an aging hippy, letting it all hang out.  There’s enough of a tendency for various bits to hang in unaccustomed ways without adding to this particular decline. The answer lies in giving some structure to the non-working week. 

Care has to be taken though.  Thoughts of structure could drive one to religion; at least one day in the week would be different from the remainder.  Fortunately, there are other ways of bringing this about.  Quite a few retirees of my acquaintance start (or in some cases, continue) going to the gym regularly.  Terrific; fixed points in the week and one is doing oneself some good, probably.  More about this gym behavior at another time – it is not all balm to the troubled spirit.

The gym is one thing.  Cafes and coffee drinking with friends is another.  Shopping for bargains.  Wasting hours finding unwanted items on that wonderful garage sale – Trademe. There are many possibilities for structure but they do not include watching sport or old movies on the box for most of the waking hours, and some of the sleeping ones as well.  Or reading pulp fiction, or not too much of it anyway.  In short, one has to provide some of the structure that working life used to burden one with.  Subjective time can hang heavy, but structured, objective time has no value associated with it, if and when one gets away from racing against the clock.  It simply provides a framework against which one can attempt to optimize one’s experiences of subjective time.

It is no easy matter though.  One does not want the day to be mainly composed of time so absorbing that it seems to flash past. Because then time is passing too quickly and one is naggingly aware that there is less and less of it remaining, a thought of which one stayed blissfully unaware throughout those working years.

It used to be said that one ‘has to find something to do’ in retirement.  What this really means is that one now has the time to get to grips with the nature of time and how to spend it.  Wisely of course, but not too wisely.  In this context, wisdom smacks of a slightly unwelcome rectitude.  It’s best to chase fun in whatever way works, always keeping a touch of the permissible disreputability of increasing years.

As J.B.Priestley said “A good holiday is one spent among people whose notions of time are vaguer than yours.”

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