Ben was 20 feet ahead, a bounce in his step as he tripped the automatic doors and headed into the South Shore YMCA. I caught up to him at the front desk, and we checked in for the first free-swim hour sponsored by his preschool.
I checked my watch and hurried Ben down the hallway toward the locker room. From his 3-year-old, 3-foot-tall perspective there were a lot of wonderful new things to see along the way. I showed Ben the direction we were heading, but he saw the indoor tennis courts to the right on the other side of a large viewing window and stopped to take a look. He asked the basic questions: where they were hitting the ball, why there were two people on some of the courts and four on others, and why there were so many balls at the edge of each court. I nudged him away from the window and down the hallway, but he soon noticed a large climbing wall and wondered out loud “how that girl got way at the top of the wall.” The next stop along the hallway was to look into the room with exercise equipment, equipment that elicited questions about what each machine did, and, more important for him, why. Each time we stopped, I checked my watch.
As we entered the boys’ locker room, I looked at my watch again and worried we would be late. But for Ben there were lockers to examine, swimsuit wringers to investigate, and hand dryers to try out. For me, time was getting short; for Ben, there was plenty of time to find out about all the new things around him. As I started to hurry him to get his swimsuit on and get out to the pool, I stopped, realizing that I was no longer on Bill-time, I was on Ben-time. This time was his time. We were here for him, and for him what mattered was the whole experience.
I had recently retired from private law practice when Ben and I went to the South Shore Y that day. (Ben and his younger sister, Nora, were the principal reason for the timing of my retirement.) And I was still looking at time from a practicing lawyer’s perspective. For lawyers, time is central to their days. They are paid according to time spent, and they measure their billable time in six-minute increments. They have appointment times and deadlines and statutes of limitation. Time measures their productivity, constrains their days, and frames their careers.
One of the shocks for a retired lawyer is the new relationship with time. Deadlines and billing time are no longer relevant. Time has a different meaning. There is a new flexibility and a new opportunity to take a fresh look at the things that matter. Spending time with a 3-year-old teaches that lesson again and again.
When other lawyers ask about retirement, I tell them about that new relationship with time. Since I have retired, other retired lawyers have told me that when they first retired they felt unsettled by the lack of structure to their time. They said that the lack of a regular workday schedule with set appointments made them feel adrift. See that as an opportunity, I said to them, as a gain not a loss.
For me, time was getting short; for Ben, there was plenty of time to find out about all the new things around him.
I tell those who ask that they will need to think about how they fill their time. It might be, in part, with more time spent traveling or more time with favorite sports or more time with fellow retirees. But I tell them that none of that will be enough. Lawyers are used to helping others. Concern for others should be a focus in retirement. I suggest to them that they find a way to serve others. It isn’t easy or automatic. It takes effort, but it is worth the effort.
And I tell them the most important thing: Spend time with family and friends. Stay close to those you love. Hopefully, they will need you; you certainly will need them.
One of my regular duties in retirement is taking Ben to preschool three days per week. Ben loves preschool. He is always anxious to get there and is all smiles when I pick him up. One of his first days at preschool, as we left the preschool building and started across the parking lot to my car, Ben started skipping, then stopped, looked up at me and said: “Pa, you should skip, too.” So there we were: an old retired guy and a 3-year-old boy, holding hands and skipping across the preschool parking lot.
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What surprised you most about retirement?
There were several surprises after I retired. The biggest surprise was how different my daily routine was. I no longer had an everyday work schedule, with appointments and deadlines. My calendar was wide open.
When author Neil Gaiman was asked recently about the daily schedule of a writer, he remarked that writing wasn’t a real job. And when asked what he meant by a real job, he replied that it was a job where you get up at a specific time in the morning, a job for which you need to set an alarm clock.
Not having something to get up for and a reason to set the alarm clock is an uncomfortable change for a lawyer who is used to a defined schedule. At first, I didn’t like the feeling of not having a work routine in retirement. But I eventually saw it as an opportunity to set a new direction and find a new job.
I was fortunate to find a new real job. I now set my alarm to get up and take grandson Ben to preschool. I am no longer on a practicing lawyer’s schedule; I am on a preschooler’s schedule.
William H. Thedinga, Weld Riley S.C., Eau Claire.
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