It is 9pm on Saturday night in down town Chicago in an area between Michigan Avenue with Prada and Burberry and the Gold Coast’s expensive apartments with views of the Lake Michigan. Sanctuary is taken in the Barnes and Noble bookshop.
I search for one particular title and skim to see what people in America are reading in their two for one offers. Slowly I find myself losing interest and playing peek-a-boo.
Occupying a chunk of the ground floor is a Starbucksesque coffee bar and grid of small tables. At each table sits one person in their 20s or 30s in personal silence and contributing to a collective hush. A type of deep meditative concentration is focussed on each screen on each laptop.
Walking round some bookshelves I am drawn back to have another look and then another. No one has moved, no one speaks - only fingers get activated. People move more in church pews.
Is this information and communication technology at work on a Saturday night? Perhaps they will go to clubs later at night or go back to luxury studio apartments?
On Monday morning, a European colleague tells me how he is responding to austerity measures in his country and the pushing out of retirement age. ‘I expected to have stopped working by now’, he said, ‘but now I am working longer and harder than I have ever worked’. Four days later as we socialise and look out at the Chicago snow he tells me that he skis and that, three years ago, he bought a holiday home in the mountains, less than two hours away from his home city.
I ask him how frequently does he go to his holiday home. He says, ‘We were there for two days after Christmas and before that not for a long time’. I prod, how often have you used it? ‘Maybe’, he replies, ‘for a total of 8 days in 3 years’.
Back in Scotland I tell this story to a friend who retired early. He pursues various interests and spends a lot of time minding and getting great joy from two very young grandchildren. When he meets old colleagues they look incredulously at him, wondering why he is not out earning more money. And in his silence he thinks why would I want to be sitting in an office fielding emails all day so that I could make money that I could give to my daughter to spend on paying someone else to provide childcare for her children.
How strange are the knots we get ourselves into, especially when those knots are so closely related to being successful, to being busy, always busy, to acquiring the right brands and to living a life that is socially acceptable to our peers.