More time for the New Man

Elliot Norton's previous essays here have been about the theater, which he covered as a critic for half a century and from which retirement does not keep him on Boston's opening nights. Now he reflects on enjoyments beyond his seat on the aisle. WHAT nobody tells you about retirement is the experience of time lag, which is comparable in a strange way to jet lag but ever so much pleasanter. Jet lag occurs when you have crossed a few time zones on a thundering jet plane and have arrived in London, perhaps, and discover it is 9 a.m. by their calculation, to which they stubbornly cling, when your body insists it is only 3 o'clock in the morning and you must sleep. This jet lag is annoying but well known and amply documented.

Time lag is private, and personal. It first confronts the retiree just after lunch, perhaps, on the second or third day of freedom, when he is just beginning to adjust to life without work.

This New Man, exulting quietly in his new state, sits down with a book that has nothing whatever to do with any of his old professional pursuits, a book to be read for sheer pleasure. Can anything be more enjoyable, more liberating, more completely satisfying?

Having read a few chapters, the retiree looks up casually at the clock. Let's see: It must be about 4:30, perhaps 20 minutes of 5. But no, the clock reads 2:30. ``That's strange,'' says the New Man, who has already begun saying things to himself, ``that clock must be slow.'' But the clock checks out with other timepieces. It is 2:30. As Yul Brynner used to say and sing with such eloquence, it's a puzzlement. And it continues. Time, it appears, is lagging.

It takes a little while, perhaps even a few months by the calendar -- which has also become strangely laggard -- for the New Man to realize that the fault, dear Brutus, is not in the clock but in the clock-watcher. For many, many years, he has been living at a fast and nervous tempo, coping daily with deadlines that must be met and crises that must be got through immediately and with so many other professional problems that must be solved swiftly. He has been living in the fast lane without even realizing it.

Except perhaps in such activities as beachcombing, American men -- and now women, too -- work under almost continual pressure; they expect and even enjoy tension and competition in the workplace, day after day, year after year; it is a constant. When that pressure is relaxed temporarily they may feel uneasy, especially if they are New Englanders, who always seem to experience a sense of guilt when not immediately involved in productive activity. When it ends altogether in retirement, there is puzzlement and perplexity. And time lag.

Fortunately, this gives way in time to a new awareness, to a feeling of pleasure and gratitude, and an acceptance of the need to adjust, to find and follow a new tempo of life. This may take longer than you would expect; the retiree will occasionally find himself pressing the clock. But it works, and the working out is exhilarating.

It becomes possible now to savor the flow of the time, and the privileges it brings. Here is a book you have read long since, but which is now dim in the memory; you can pick it up and browse to recapture the old glow. Or you may decide that the right way of the mind is forward, not back; that there are new books on new themes to taste and enjoy at a deliberate pace. This can be exhilarating.

Living now at a more measured tempo, in a new rhythm, it becomes possible to approach one's hobbies with a fresh attitude, with a fuller appreciation of values. Do you like to walk? Have you always enjoyed walking? Keep walking now in a properly adjusted retirement, but disregard those who insist you must push ahead rapidly, shoulders high, head up, and eyes bright. Take it easy. Stroll! After a while, you will find you are breathing deeply, from the diaphragm, and you don't much care if it is now 2:30 or 4 o'clock, or whatever the clock may choose to indicate.

In the garden, when the time comes after a winter of reading -- leisurely -- all the catalogs, there will be no inner need to compete for tomatoes of vast size or roses free entirely from the depredations of beetles; small tomatoes can be tasty, and the beetles can be picked off, or not picked off. The sun and the soil and the movements of the earth are there to be appreciated, perhaps for the first time, by the New Man, who is patient and relaxed.

Time runs turbulently during one's working life. In retirement, once the New Man has adjusted, the turbulence is less but the flow is no less vital and strong.

Elliot Norton

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