Friday, July 27, 2012

Take it easy

A friend of ours is vacationing for several weeks on an island this summer. Every few days, she emails me to update me on her trip. And she always begins with a description of how many hours she has spent working each day since the last update.

Understand, this isn’t “voluntourism.” Working isn’t an inherent part of the vacation scheme. She’s a freelance writer, like me, and could theoretically go away for a few weeks without sitting down at the desk at all. But it’s very important to her to impress upon me that that’s not the case. So she tells me how many hours she worked – and then she goes on to cover the various water sports and cultural excursions that the vacation has encompassed so far.

This has compelled me to contemplate why she feels the need to report on her work schedule. In his essay “The Busy Trap” in the New York Times last month, Tim Kreider implies that being busy has become a badge of honor, that we all have plenty of acquaintances –like the one I’m describing – who seem to believe that if they don’t remind us again and again of how busy they are, we might think that they’re, I don’t know, on vacation. Slacking, even.

I try hard to avoid this inclination in myself and not to talk about how much work I have in the abstract. I’m happy to tell anyone who is interested about specific assignments currently under way, either because they’re interesting or because they are particularly challenging, but either way, the discussion is about the specific assignment, not the mere fact that I have work to do.

So instead of referring to myself and my family as being busy, I now think of it as having a full day when all the activities are of our choosing -- whether that means recreational activities we specifically want to do or work we agreed to take on because it’s more desirable than other possible ways of making a living, even if we might rather not be working at all. I think of “busy” as meaning the sense of a treadmill: items on the schedule that are onerous, self-perpetuating and generally unfulfilling. Having a full day, on the other hand, means a lot of generally appealing options to pursue.

Thinking about this has underscored for me how much I admire those people who don't talk about being busy, and how wary I sometimes am of those who do. Several years ago, when I worked for a large international company, I was called to serve on an ad hoc committee with our CEO. “The first available meeting time she has is in six months,” the CEO’s assistant told the rest of us as we tried to set up a meeting. This gave me an uneasy feeling. Really? The CEO was busy for six months? So who was steering the ship?

Conversely, it reminds me of the first time I met the obstetrician who later delivered both my children. On my very first appointment with him, he did a physical exam and then told me to dress and meet him in his office. When I walked into his office five minutes later, he was reading the sports section of the daily paper. I loved the fact that he was so open about not being overscheduled that he was sitting there reading the paper. It assured me that he would have time for me – which as a new patient was just what I needed to know.

I began this summer with a commitment to ease up. It’s not that I actually planned to work less – as a freelancer, I need all the work I can get right now – I just didn’t want to think quite so much about work. I wanted to think about summertime.

Now, summer is about halfway over. If nothing else, I’ve thought a lot about the extent to which “busy” is a state of mind. I have a lot to do. But I’m not willing to use the “b” word because I’m happy to be doing all of it. Busy? Not really. Just happily occupied.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Humpty Dumpty and me

Weekday mornings, I do a two-mile run in my own secluded neighborhood. Running in solitude has its merits; I can be as focused and meditative as I wish during those morning runs, when it’s unusual that I see more than one or two other people out dog-walking or biking.

But sometimes I miss running in more populated areas. Sometimes it just feels good to be surrounded by other likeminded athletes, to trade in the feeling of solitude for the sense of being part of a vibrant community. So I’ve developed the habit this summer of heading for the Minuteman Bikeway in Bedford on Sunday mornings to run amidst a steady flow of other runners as well as walkers, bicyclists, and in-line skaters.

And most of the time it’s energizing to be part of that community. But last Sunday my run took a turn for the worse shortly after the two-mile point where I turned around to head back to the parking lot. Somehow I tripped over a small frost heave and saw the pavement rushing toward my face before I could even get my hands out. I landed full-face on the asphalt.

I’ve had a few bad spills in my 27 years of running – maybe two or three – but this was the first time I’d fallen face-first. Though it was a relatively high-traffic time on the Minuteman Bikeway, only one person was behind me at the time, a bicyclist who stopped just seconds after I fell.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

In those seconds, I had already determined that I was conscious and able to move. I picked myself up and moved over to the wooden rail alongside the path, which is the right height for sitting on. “I’m okay. You don’t have to stop,” I told him.

Without another word, he pedaled off, and I regretted what I’d said. I’d answered reflexively, based on my own aversion to anything that makes me stop mid-workout. I suspected he didn’t want to interrupt his ride to check on a stranger’s well-being. But as soon as he left, I wished he hadn’t. I felt awful: my face hurt, my mouth hurt, my palms stung (I guess the hands did catch me at some point along the way, but apparently that was after my face had taken the brunt of the fall), my knees hurt. And yet because I was already sitting on the rail aside the trail, no one who passed me even moments later knew anything was wrong; it’s not unusual at all to see people hunched over alongside the path, catching their breath.

Within a few minutes, I’d patted off most of the blood with the hem of my t-shirt and started up again at a slow jog. After all, there was only one way back to the parking lot, and waiting, or walking rather than running, just meant it would be longer until I was done.

I kept thinking about the bicyclist who rode off. I wished he’d stayed a little longer. I could have used just a few seconds of company. But in my usual attempt to be obliging and not inconvenience anyone, I’d told him he should keep riding.

Despite the throngs of Sunday exercisers, no one else knew anything was wrong as I ran my last two miles back. What felt like a lot of blood coming from my lips and chin was really just occasional droplets welling up, and I was blotting them with my t-shirt as I ran. Besides, the people passing me from the other direction saw me for only a split second, if at all, as they pedaled or ran by.

Back in my car, I drank some water, cleaned off some more blood, and then drove to the bagel shop where I often stop after using the Bikeway for a dozen bagels to bring home. Normally I grumble to myself about the counter service at this shop. But today, the same woman who in the past has seemed to me to be much more interested in chatting with her co-workers than helping customers stared at me and then handed me a plastic bag full of ice cubes. “Hold this against your face for the swelling,” she said. I thanked her – for the ice pack, and for the unexpected concern.

It was a reminder that human nature can surprise you. I blamed the bicyclist for not being more solicitous, but the woman at the bagel shop surprised me with her compassion. “No head injury; no orthopedic injury; some scrapes and bruises are really not that big a deal,” I told myself on the drive home. “Like Humpty Dumpty, I just had a bad fall, that’s all.”

And that reminded me of a goofy line from my son’s recent middle school play, in which, a little girl wandering through a fairy-tale forest comes across Humpty Dumpty sitting on his wall. “I heard you had a bad fall!” she says. “Yeah, but I had an awesome summer!” he quips.

And as it happens, I am having a generally awesome summer, so as corny as the joke is, it made me feel better. Like Humpty Dumpty, you had a bad fall, that’s all, I told myself. But it doesn’t change the rest of the summer.

So now I’m nursing the bruises and hoping the swelling goes down within the next week or two. I look like I was in a barroom brawl, and when I close my eyes I still see the pavement rushing toward me, but I’m fine. Bad fall. Awesome summer. It was good enough for Humpty Dumpty, and for me as well.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Waking early

This summer I find myself waking easily around 6 a.m., 6:30 at the latest, and I marvel as I begin the day how easy it has become to arise early.

This is a fairly remarkable thing to me. For years, I’ve tried to become more of an early-morning person. On January 1st of 2010, it was my singular resolution: I was going to try to be out of bed earlier in the morning. And by earlier, at that point, I meant before eight o’clock on weekends.

But it’s never been something that comes naturally to me. I get up early on school days or work days because I have to, but given the leeway of weekends or vacations, I used to always drowse until well after dawn, even in the winter when “after dawn” meant well past seven o’clock.

This summer that’s changed, though. It may be a sign of aging; I’ve always heard that it’s easier for older people to wake up early. It may be a sign that my children are more self-reliant; at the ages of 10 and 13, they simply don’t wear me out on a daily basis the way they once did.

Or it could be a combination of these factors. Because the fact is that it couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve started waking earlier just as the kids are reaching the teen or pre-teen years at which young people typically start sleeping later. (Actually, Tim sleeps ‘til after nine; Holly wakes and then likes to read in bed in the morning. She has no idea what a wonderful luxury of childhood that is.)

So I feel richly rewarded as well as a little self-congratulatory this summer. Even with no firm morning commitments – that is, nothing more time-sensitive than trying to get a few hours of writing done before lunch so that the kids and I can do something fun in the afternoon – I’m still up before 6:30. The summer air is fresh and cool in the early morning. Even the dog is still asleep; I write my Morning Pages, put on my running shoes, and then wake her when I’m ready to head out the door for a run.

And then when I’m done with my workout 45 minutes later, the kids are still asleep, and Rick is heading off to work. I can make breakfast and drink my coffee and read the paper and even check my email and start my work day before anyone else is awake, before anyone needs anything from me.

It’s funny to me to think how long I tried to force this change, and how then it just happened on its own. I don’t necessarily think there’s a uniform lesson to be learned from that. For example, I don’t really believe that if I just stop attempting weight loss, I’ll lose five pounds, or that if I stop trying to improve my writing, I’ll find an acceptance letter from the New Yorker in the mailbox.

Still, there may be a small lesson in it. I keep thinking of that Buddhist phrase: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Only in this case, it’s “when the subject is ready, the habit will take hold.” Maybe I really needed all that extra sleep, all those years. Maybe now there’s something different about me that is more interested in the quiet of the early morning than the chance to rest. I can’t take much credit, but I’m finally an earlier riser. And just as I imagined, it feels wonderful.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Keeping busy but feeling leisurely

Last week I wrote about wanting this summer to feel more like summers used to when I was in school. Rather than working daily and trying to fit in all the same things I try to fit in the rest of the year, I wanted somehow to have a real summer break – even while filing articles on deadline and maintaining the necessary workload that guarantees a paycheck.

Taking a moment to look back a week after making that resolution, I have to say it really seems to be working. At least in part. Not because I’ve been doing so much less in any particular area of my life but just because I’ve been thinking about work less and thinking about fun more. In the past week, we’ve taken part in our town’s Old Home Day celebration, attended the annual Crawfish Boil hosted by friends of ours, gone to a minor league baseball game, attended a niece’s graduation party, watched two of Tim’s baseball games, and spent 48 hours in Portland over the July 4th holiday. That’s way more fun than I fit into an ordinary work week, and I don’t feel one bit remiss in having done all of that.

I’ve also managed to keep up with work assignments, though in truth I have a little bit less work this summer than is typical.

And so far I’ve even kept the house up reasonably well and maintained a steady supply of groceries and homemade meals for my family.

So it actually doesn’t really feel like I’m kicking back or doing any less; it just feels like my attention has shifted. I’ve just made the fun parts more of a priority, while still fitting in work and domestic duties whenever time allows.

Tim Kreider’s well-circulated essay in last Sunday’s New York Times about what he calls “the ‘busy’ trap” was particularly timely, in my case, because it reminded me that being busy is often less about meeting obligations as about setting priorities. The past week has been busy because I didn’t want to cut back on work, housework, family obligations, or fun. I was busy because I was choosing to do all of that. But somehow it didn’t feel hectic, because I was doing what I wanted to do, both in terms of work and fun. It reminded me that when I fall into the trap that Kreider describes as being “crazy busy,” it’s usually because I’ve taken on obligations I don’t really want: community projects I feel a duty to help out with but am not adequately vested in the outcome of, or the rare work assignment that feels uninspiring and mismatched to my abilities.

So in reality, I might not find myself any less busy at all this summer from a time management perspective. Long uninterrupted days of lounging on the beach will probably not happen, at least not more than once or twice. But it’s all a matter of perspective. My time will probably continue to seem full, but I’ll keep sight of the fact that I’m doing just what I choose to do. And when that’s the case, I’m beginning to realize, being busy can seem like its own kind of leisure.