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Tuesday
Jun122012

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

When I was growing up I based my idea of a vacation on what the Brady Bunch did. I knew instinctively that my dad’s version of a vacation-- load up the station wagon with sleeping bags, clothes, cooler full of leftovers, and hit the expressway at 5am (avoiding rush hour) to drive out of the city to...well... to drive, and drive--was seriously flawed. No, the Brady Way must be The Way. You would fly somewhere. You went with the people you really loved, like Kitty Carryall or your favorite housekeeper. You stayed in a hotel 80% of the time and experimented with activities you’d never do at home, like hula lessons, riding mules down the Grand Canyon, surfboarding. Your vacation would also allow you unusual and exciting experiences that would never happen at home, like being cursed by tiki idols, getting lost, and eating beans from inside a flashlight; you would encounter unusual animals like giant hairy tarantulas, or meet celebrities who may serenade you on a ukelele, or possibly kidnap you temporarily. There would be adventure, perhaps a moment of danger, but ultimately your vacation would be a story, and it would be a story that took you away from the droning narrative rerun of your everyday life.

This Thursday I am taking a vacation. For three days. Maybe two, if I can’t find a sub for my Thursday night class.

I took my first vacation in 8 years last August when my colleague (thanks Patty!) lent me her summer house near the Mississippi for five days. It had been so long since I had taken that much time off I found myself blissfully perplexed with what to do; I spent hours writing, reading, painting, creating, and really and truly let the moment dictate itself. What is a vacation? Well, to me, it’s enough time to get away from your have-tos and should-dos so that you can just be.

Some studies suggest we need 14 days straight in order to get out of that mindset where we only are worried about the past, or thinking about the future. In case you don’t know, America is pretty screwed up when it comes to vacation taking, and apparently things started going horribly wrong shortly after new Brady episodes stopped in 1974. Here are some statistics I came across:

  • Outside the U.S., mandatory vacation time ranges from 10 days in Canada and Japan to 20 days in the Netherlands and the UK, 24 days in Germany, 25 in Sweden and France, and 35 days for managers in Italy. The required vacation time in the U.S.? None.  In America there is no legal mandate to take vacation time, which means the environment where you work will likely dictate how comfortable you feel about taking what little (if any) you have.
  • Only 57% of U.S. workers use up all of the days they're entitled to, compared with 89% of workers in France, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found.
  • We are the only industrialized nation without mandatory Family leave time for parents of newborns.
  • The average middle income family now works more total hours in four months than they did in 1979. Some 80% of men and 62% of women work more than 40 hours a week, and almost 40% of Americans now work more than 50 hours a week.

Time magazine's June 6, 1983 cover story called stress "The Epidemic of the Eighties" and referred to it as our leading health problem. Currently, the CDC views obesity as America’s number one health problem. Interestingly, scientists have pinpointed the eighties as the decade that our weight started packing on, less than a decade after The Brady Bunch went off the air. You have to wonder: did our sudden American focus on “work productivity” (which some statistics say has increased 400% since the 1950’s) mean less time to recharge, and more fast food and stress-related eating?


The first time I recognized the importance of unplugging completely from my work environment was in 2000 when I took three weeks off of work to go to England, Scotland and Ireland. I had never taken more than a week off before that, and prior to that I had spent 7 years working as a restaurant manager who only got two days off in a row once a month.  I had, at that point, four weeks of vacation a year, but it was an unwritten rule that you never took two WHOLE weeks off at once. Clearly the business model involved only paying the minimum amount of managers to keep things running, and there really wasn’t enough manpower to cover more than a week off-- even that often meant stretching the remaining management staff to the limit working 14 hour shifts. During those years, I’d get to my week of vacation like a dying man in the desert crawls to a water source. By the time I got to my week off, I’d collapse. I’d sleep for a couple days, and try to catch up. My body clock would start to regulate and after three or four days I’d be getting to bed earlier, waking up a bit more refreshed. I’d start eating meals at mealtimes again. Only thing is, after the first two or three days, the mind starts to look ahead. “Only another four days off, another three...” and instead of being in the moment, recharging in the now, I was already dreading returning to the messed up way of living that was my everyday life.

Three weeks off was enlightening. It took a couple days for the jet-lag to dissipate, and mentally I was just catching up to the now, but after my body adjusted, I found myself mentally searching forward for the horizon of my vacation... and I realized it was so far ahead I couldn’t see it, so I stopped focusing on the end of my trip, and instead I just experienced the now. And it was amazing all the things I was able to experience. The sense of recharging. By the time my vacation was winding down, I found I was so calm and energized I didn’t even dread the end of it.

And then I went back to school and switched jobs and started thinking of vacation as the time when I was not both working and in school. And then vacation became “break” and there wasn’t much of that either because I didn’t plan trips anywhere very often, and I realize now I thought of “break” as time to catch up on the work I couldn’t squeeze in during my regular weeks.

Working as an independent contractor certainly has it’s benefits, like being able to sit outside at a coffee shop on a beautiful day in June while some folks enjoy the view from their cubicles in a heavily sanitized air-conditioned office. But it also makes it hard to have a “day off.” It’s hard to say no to a client when they want a time when you have nothing planned, even if you know you’ll be coming in to work for just one hour. Seems like no big deal, but it’s not far off to having a seven day week when only four of those days are really productively scheduled, and three of them involve coming in to work for an hour here, an hour there. As a part time teacher, a lot of the lesson planning and reading I do happens outside the college. It gets to a point where you do some “work” every day and there is often a feeling of guilt if you have a day that is just for yourself. There always seems to be some work I need to be doing, and if I take a day off and do “nothing” I feel guilty.

Apparently even folks with benefits have trouble making time to do “nothing.” Even Anderson Cooper recently remarked that he got where he is by being the guy who subbed for all the other folks who needed to take a day off and never taking any himself. Many people take a vacation and still check emails and work online so they never unplug. One of my clients remarked recently that taking time off almost isn’t worth it--she has to work extra hard in the days leading up to the vacation, and then comes back to a glut of piled up work after. How can any of us possibly recharge our input when we never really stop our work output?

But then there is another client of mine, who owns her own business. She came to me months back with low back pain clearly tied to the physical lifestyle her business imparts: lots of desk work and computer time. She has made remarkable strides strengthening, and I can often see how when she comes in for one of her twice-weekly lessons, she sighs as we start, like she’s just unplugged herself from work. A few weeks ago she took a two week trip to Australia, and I could immediately see the effect this had on her well being upon her return.

Me? In 6 days I begin working with 31 teenagers five days a week. It rather belatedly occurred to me that between my Pilates teaching and teaching writing to these kids, I have no scheduled days off for eight weeks.

!!?*$#!+@^&**!!?!

I felt my chest start to get tight. Then I realized I needed to bite the bullet and take a few days off. Additionally, I’m going to plan for a few weekends off. It helps to think about the advice I often give my Prenatal and Postnatal clients: If you don’t take care of mom first, she can’t take care of anyone. But why should that advice only apply to pregnant women?

So here’s my plan for my big three-day:

1.Try to do as many have-tos by Wednesday (bills, contract paperwork, lesson plans, etc)
2.If I don’t finish my have-to’s by Wednesday, they are off the table until Sunday.
3.I have no “plan.” I might do some writing. I might go kayaking. Maybe some mediation. I’ll probably do some biking. But I will not have any obligations or have-tos on my agenda, so nothing to feel stressed about if I don’t do them.

I hope to get out of the house a lot. See some new scenery, try something I don’t normally do, and try to just experience each day as it comes-- a state of mind I think we desperately need to find in our everyday. I hope I can come a those three days like I do a good story--with excitement and engagement, and a sense of discovery-- just let the narrative unfold and enjoy the ride.

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