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On the Contrary Talkin' About Chicken

May 18, 2001
Yesterday, I'd just gotten comfortable at my favorite table in myneighborhood Starbucks when I noticed two 70-somethings seated at the table nextto me. Although they sat mere inches from one another, they communicated as ifthey were standing on opposite ends of a dark mountain tunnel.

    "I'M WILLING TO GO FAR FOR GOOD CHICKEN," bellowed the gentleman inyellow pants on the left.

    "YOU DO LOVE YOUR CHICKEN," agreed his companion, a man whoseenormous 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 mylatte, and began to read through the folder of interview notes I'd brought withme. I read one sentence before my concentration was interrupted.

    "KNOW WHO HAS SURPRISINGLY GOOD CHICKEN?" queried the man with theglasses.

    "WHO?" asked Yellow Pants eagerly.

    "RED LOBSTER."

    "RED LOBSTER?"

    "SWEAR TO GOD."

    Yellow Pants couldn't accept the information. He did, however, agree that theshrimp platter was second to none. Yellow Pants then went on to explain, instupefying detail, the exact location of every good chicken restaurant within 90miles 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 andnoticed two men in dark suits sitting at a table on my right. They were tappinginto their Palm Pilots, jotting notes on a legal pad, and strategizing about anupcoming sales meeting. They were doing exactly what people are supposed to doin Starbucks: work.

    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 workingyears is the ability -- and desire -- to talk about chicken. At length. I wish I hadtime to think about chicken, I muttered to myself as I jammed a folder into mybriefcase and headed off in search of a quieter table. But I'm busy. I havedeadlines. I have to multitask whenever possible. Even my idle time is filledwith projects and purpose.

    Take running, for example. When I go for a run, instead of admiring thedaffodils that are starting to push through the hard-packed winter dirt, I tryto generate new story ideas and make sure I keep my heart rate at 70 percent ofmaximum for at least 25 minutes.

    When I go to the dentist, instead of wasting time in the waiting room readingabout Tom and Nicole or Meg and Dennis, I compare the allocation of my stockportfolio against the allocations suggested in Money magazine. No sense wastinga good 20 minutes.

    I'm not like this physical therapist I know who just converted to part-timeand now leaves work at one o'clock every day so she can work on her golf game orwatch Oprah. 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 lastnight, when I found myself alone in a restaurant waiting for a friend. I didn'thave a notebook, so I couldn't jot notes or plan the next day's activities. Ididn't have a cell phone, so I couldn't check voice mail or leave impressiveafter-hours messages for my editors. I hadn't even brought a report or magazineto read.

    So, I read the menu. Four times. I looked out the window. I read the menuagain. 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 aroundmy waist and begun to take deep sucking breaths like a junkie curled in thedarkened corner of an abandoned warehouse.

    By the time my friend arrived 15 minutes later, I was utterly disconsolate.Not because she was late, but because I'd been forced to spend 15 minutes -- 900whole seconds -- idle and alone with my thoughts. There were things I could havebeen doing, should have been doing. But I went to the restaurant unprepared. Thetime had been wasted.

    After I explained my dismay to my friend, who was not nearly as apologeticfor 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 a goodthing, you know."

    And then it dawned on me. The ability to cogitate about things like chickenand Red Lobster is not a side effect of one's employment status; it is afunction of one's perspective. My friend was right: idle time is not wastedtime. 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 canbe cooked and how many other animals, when cooked, taste like chicken. It's whypeople take vacations and have Sundays off, and why there are wonderful thingsin the world like books and plays and champagne and hiking trails. Idle time maynot 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 bealone 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 somethingbecause, well, just because. Then, when you've figured out how to be idle -- how todo or think or talk about anything that pleases you even for a brief amount oftime every day -- let me know how it goes. I'll be with two old guys at this greatnew chicken restaurant down the street.

Workforce, May 2001, pp.21-22 -- Subscribe Now!