Either I didn’t work as many hours as I thought or I was doing more personal business during work than I realized but I don’t have as much time on my hands in retirement as I imagined I would. I did get my first (make that my second) call today from someone who assumed (correctly apparently) that I wasn’t doing anything and could surely drop whatever I was otherwise engaged in to help “since you’re retired.” There was a problem with an air conditioning unit at church which needed the attention of someone from the trustees. Right away. She thought of me ‘because you’re not doing anything.’ So I did. In doing so I accepted her assessment of my current life.
“Are you busy?” she asked.
“Not at all,” I replied. I said so almost without thinking.
Just like when my son called during my first few days of retirement to say he and his friend Na had ridden their bikes on the Illinois and Michigan Canal towpath from Joliet to Morris on a hot Tuesday afternoon and “could you come get us in your car? How soon can you get here?” He would never have made that request if I were I working. They had planned to pedal all the way to Ottawa but it proved longer and harder than they had imagined so Dean thought ‘let’s call my Dad. He’s retired and not doing anything. He can come get us and we can put the bikes in the trunk of his Buick.’ Which is exactly what happened. So people assume I have nothing better to do and will help them at a moment’s notice. And I confirm their assumption by doing just that.
But if this immediate response request thing happens more frequently I’m going to have to find a way to turn up the ‘Just Say No’* meter and tell them I can’t because…what? Why can’t I bring myself to say I’m busy? Why can’t I just say no because I’m busy writing, reading, about to go to the YMCA, or otherwise engaged in something else? Aren’t those valid activities? Instead I find myself saying “I wasn’t doing anything really.” How often do you truly do absolutely nothing? Never. Rather we regard whatever activity in which we’re engaged as not valid in the mind of the person who inquires. We assume they don’t accept that writing or reading or napping fall into the category of ‘busy’ and perhaps deep down neither do we. So we don’t offer those perfectly valid activities as reasons for not meeting whatever request they throw our way. The trick is not falling into their frame of mind. Bill my friend from Chicago called around lunchtime and asked it another way.
“What are you doing right now?”
Because I’m an honest guy I replied “I’m sitting in my yard at the picnic table doing a crossword puzzle.” Fortunately he didn’t ask me to drop what I was doing and do something else. He only wanted to talk, and for a very short time. The issue of being busy or not didn't come up.
It was 72 degrees and the sky was a perfect blue. Birds flew past me to the feeder. My dog was lying beside me. I was under an oak tree. It was idyllic. I was fully aware that it was mid day Thursday and I was in bib overalls in my back yard. Was I doing nothing? Not at all. Compared to most people in town the activity I was engaged in would be categorized as nothing. But one’s activity and the perception or validity of that activity by others are different things. I was pretty absorbed in that puzzle, and the weather, and the beauty of my yard. Being occupied in that way may not qualify to most as busy. But it does to me.
I’ve received a lot of mostly unsolicited retirement advice during this my first full month of not working. One little pearl of wisdom was this
Do not gloat.
So in order not to gloat I’ll stop. I won’t go into the golf, the naps, the 'sometimes one, sometimes none' scheduled items on my calendar most days. The point I’m trying to make here is that we each have the right, I believe, to determine our own level of activity and describe it as we wish. So don’t hesitate to call. But don’t be surprised in the future if I tell you I’m busy.
*Just Say No was the national anti drug campaign started by Nancy Reagan during the 1980’s. It was the most simplistic and inane approach to drug prevention yet to be foisted on the American public. The message was that we didn’t need more drug treatment, increased resources, and new approaches, only more will power on the part of those tempted by drug use. If only it were that easy. If only we could wear a button that says JUST SAY NO and stop the violence and pain that stems from addiction to drugs. We can’t. It didn’t and doesn’t work. But it was great for a while, thirty some years ago, to think it might.