Time is of the essence or is it?

April 02, 1994|By ALICE STEINBACH

The man sitting next to me at the busy lunch counter was visibly annoyed. "I've been waiting over five minutes," he said, turning to me. "How long does it take to put some soup in a bowl and carry it out here?"

Too long, apparently.

The man who mistook his waitress for a servant got up and left in a huff. But not before unloading a parting shot: "Time is money," he said in an angry voice, one loud enough to be heard by everyone at the counter.

It was the second time in a week I'd heard that philosophy expressed: Time is money.

The first time I heard it was when a very impatient woman ended a phone conversation this way: "Well, I've got to go now. Time is money, you know."

The woman on the phone, by the way, was me.

Funny, isn't it, how sometimes you don't realize the stupidity of what you're saying until you hear someone else saying it.

Which is exactly what happened to me.

"What a stupid thing to say," I found myself thinking after the man at the lunch counter unleashed his "time is money" bromide. Still, I knew I'd said precisely those words more times than I cared to admit.

The fact is, we live in a world inhabited by busy people. And busy people are usually kept busy by, among other things, the need to make money.

Which means a lot of our time gets equated with money. In that sense, I suppose, time is money.

But while most of us have a pretty clear idea of how hard it is to make money and how easy it is to spend it, we seem unable to extend this understanding to the concept of time.

Oh, we pay lip service to the idea of time as something to be spent -- as in, "One of these days, I'm going to get around to spending more time with the kids." But we don't think of time, as we do of money, as being something that comes in limited quantities.

Plenty of time to do that next year, we tell ourselves about the plan to replant the garden or take an evening art class.

Time, you might say, has been on my mind lately.

I even looked it up in the dictionary: "An indefinite, unlimited duration in which things are considered as happening in the past, present, or future," is the way Webster's New World Dictionary defines time.

For some reason, my next instinct was to look up the word "timeless." It was defined by Webster's as "that which cannot be measured by time."

Too much of life, I decided, is "measured by time." Or, to be precise, too much of my life.

And the joke's on me. Because I remember very little of the "measured time" -- the minutes, hours, weeks, months, years -- I spent trying to beat the clock.

But the timeless experiences exist still. And they are as clear and sharp in memory as they were in actuality.

Here, for example, comes the memory of a night spent last summer in Oxford, England learning how to dance the quick step. For who-knows-how-long, a group of us -- under the spell of Bruce, the dance instructor -- glided, dipped, swooped and laughed our way across the wooden floors of Lincoln College. Time simply disappeared.

Afterward, walking home in the night air to my rooms at the college -- the domes and spires of Oxford stabbing the dark blue sky above -- I felt completely relaxed. I glanced at my watch and suddenly realized that for the last several hours I had not been measuring time.

And yet, as I said, I am able to relive the single moments of that singular evening as though they were happening right now.

It is the same with the memories of the spring my 12-year-old son and I planted a garden together. For my entire two-week vacation, I woke up with just one thought: Lilacs. Or day lilies. Or snapdragons.

That was the spring my son and I told time by the position of the sun and our calculations as to how long we could dig before darkness fell.

There are April mornings still when I wake up and think: I can smell the lilacs off in the distance of May.

So here is what I have decided time is: Time, in the final analysis, is all we really have.

And the wise person will spend wisely the time of her life.

Editor's note: Alice Steinbach has decided to return to feature writing. This will be her last column.

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