Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Away without work

I have declared many times in the past that I am going to leave for vacation deadline-free.

But I’ve never really succeeded.

And I’ve always managed to rationalize it.

“The great thing about being a freelancer is that I can work from anywhere,” I have said many times. “I don’t even tell my editors I’m going on vacation, because I want them to keep thinking I’m available any time they want to give me an assignment. I don’t want them to fall out of the habit of calling me because I told them I’d be out of town.”

“And besides,” I’ve said, perhaps sometimes unconvincingly, “it’s nice to know I’m earning money while I’m vacationing.”

But at times, it hasn’t been so great at all. More than once, I’ve been assigned the dreaded “July 4th round-up” while spending a late-June week in Colorado. The July 4th round-up involves contacting the 53 cities and towns covered by my regional section of the Globe and finding out what each one has planned in terms of public activities for the 4th of July. Once I’ve reached all 53 towns and nailed down the details of their Independence Day observances, I then merely have to write a few paragraphs of witty or reflective text to weave them all together.

I’ve interviewed epidemiologists from airport gates and football players from downtown coffee shops. I skipped a rafting trip with my family last year so that I could write about a film festival. “It’s fine,” I always said. “I’m lucky to have a job that’s so portable.”

Lucky, maybe, but what was really lucky was that I never had to finish up all my work before I left town. Because even though I was never the type in high school or college to hand in papers late or request extensions, I never seem to quite get to any kind of absolute endpoint with my professional assignments.

I’d even tried travel writing: turning a vacation into a business trip by writing a travel story about my destination. “It will be great,” I insisted to my husband. “I’ll get to interview random people on the street and storekeepers and tour guides. I’ll earn a big check for this trip, and a tax write-off.”

All of that happened, when I scored a travel-writing gig, but what it really did was, in fact, turn a vacation into a business trip. Not only could I interview fellow travelers and tour guides; I had to. Even when I wanted to just enjoy my family and the scenery and being away from work. Because I never exactly was away from work.

But this time it’s different. All four of us are traveling unplugged, unrechargeable, and unconnected. We’re motivated not by any ideological resolution to get back to nature but by the high cost of international roaming charges and wireless charges at our destination. We can’t afford to be connected this vacation. So the plan is that we won’t.

I don’t care about missing out on email or Facebook. What worried me was the thought of being compelled to meet all my deadlines ahead of time.

But I planned it out. I had six articles due when I realized this. I had six days left before departure. An article a day. That was math even I could do.

And meeting each daily goal as the days went by felt like a huge accomplishment. I had no choice. If I fell behind, I’d miss deadlines altogether. And I’ve never done that in my entire freelance career.

I’m almost there. Five days in; five articles in. One more to go. I haven’t written it yet, but I will. And I’ve forewarned all my editors that they cannot come back to me with questions or fact-checking because I won’t be here. If they thought it was curious that it was the first time in almost ten years I’d admitted to taking a vacation, they didn’t say so. They just urged me to have a great time.

And I think I will. Traveling work-free is a new concept to me, but one I think I’ll like. I guess I’ll find out. Just as soon as I finish that sixth article. Then I’m all caught up with work and ready to go.

And if I miss work too much, I can always work on a travel story about our destination. I have a theme all set, after all. Work-free travel.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

So much fun I forgot to post

I was feeling a little bit ambivalent about our plan to head to the beach last Sunday. I knew the drive would be long and the traffic heavy, and there were items on my To Do list that would go undone for yet another week if we were out all day.

But as my two children reminded me, it’s a tradition. Every summer, we spend one afternoon with friends on the beach. And even though these particular friends live only three miles away from us the rest of the year and we generally see them several times a month, the annual meet-up during their Maine vacation is a tradition now ten years old. So no one wanted to miss out.

It turned out to be a perfect beach day, and none of the inconvenience mattered compared to a gorgeous afternoon of bright sunshine, dry air, tossing waves, and happy children on Boogie boards.

Not until we were driving home did I realize what was missing. How had I managed to overlook something so critical? I double-checked, and then triple-checked, but no: the proof was right there, painfully obvious in its absence.

It wasn’t my wallet or my phone or my purse, or either of my children, that I’d neglected to bring home from the beach with me. Instead, it was any technological record of the fact that we’d been there. Caught up in the fun of visiting with friends, watching the kids jump in the waves, and taking a long walk along the water’s edge, I’d forgotten to take a single photo. Or jot a Facebook post about what we were doing. Or tweet a witty 160-character description of the beach crowd. Or press a button on a virtual map to show just where we were.

My presence at the beach had disappeared as quickly as my footprints in the sand, all because in the spirit of the moment, I’d completely forgotten to press any buttons on any screens connected to any social media platforms or other digital networks.

If a tree falls in the forest….. I muttered to myself as I scrolled pointlessly through my phone just to be sure there weren’t any photos I’d somehow overlooked. If I didn’t snap it or post it or tag it or collocate it, how do I know it happened?

And for that matter, if friends can’t immediately show their appreciation for all the fun I’m having, am I really having the same amount of fun?

I knew it was a ridiculous concern. I’d been having fun for nearly four decades before Facebook even existed. And yet, I realized as I drove home from the beach, in the course of just a few years, my perspective had been somehow intractably altered. Posting on Facebook is like having an automatic cheering section behind you; suddenly everything you do seems worthy of enthusiastic acknowledgment, as if we are all toddlers learning to walk again. Photo of my kids on the last day of school. Hooray! Bon mot about the complicated but rewarding life of a freelance writer. Love it! Tongue-in-cheek and yet inexplicably poignant line about how happy I am to be celebrating 22 years of marriage. Go, you two, go!

If I can’t “share” it, how can I share it?, I wondered, even though I knew that not so long ago, this question wouldn’t have even borne semantic sense to me.

“How was the beach?” my husband asked as the kids and I arrived home.

“It was wonderful,” I said. “Everyone was sorry not to see you, though.”

“I learned how to use a boogie board,” my daughter reported.

“We ate lobster rolls,” my son added.

Oh, right, I remembered. This is how you share when you can’t “share.” This is how you communicate what happened when you don’t have photos, hashtags or links to help tell the story. You put it into words. I remember this.

When I woke up the next morning, there were no red flags on my computer screen telling me that a few dozen more people had “liked” my afternoon at the beach. In fact, it seemed as if no one except for me was even thinking about my afternoon at the beach.

So I wrote a note to our friends thanking them for a great day. And I reminded the kids of the boogie boarding and lobster rolls, and assured them we’d go back again next summer.

It’s a tradition, after all. And sometimes you really don’t need to crowdsource your experience to know you’ve had a good time.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Not-so-great runs

Yesterday in an online discussion group for streak runners, one of the participants, Judy Mick, posted a blog entry titled “Not All Runs Are Great Ones!”

It was good food for thought. As she pointed out, many of us runners rhapsodize publicly about our best runs, our most memorable runs, our most exciting runs, our most challenging runs. Each runner has certain days that stick in his or her memory. I can name a half-dozen or so of my most memorable runs without even stopping to think: the Rio Grande Trail in Aspen after my grandmother’s memorial service; a 5-miler down Connecticut Avenue in D.C. on a Sunday morning last April; a 5-mile road race my son and I did in Bath, Maine, in July of 2008.

But Judy Mick reminded us that we are less inclined to share the not-so-great days. The really awful ones we talk about, of course. The days we run with a fever or stomach virus, or in an ice storm or hurricane, or take a tumble or nearly get clipped by a passing car. I’ve talked or blogged about all of those.

It’s the just not-so-great days that get overlooked, but reminiscing about some of that kind of day reminded us runners of our single common attribute: we persist, no matter what. As streak-runners, we run day after day after day. Snow, rain, heat, gloom of night: like the postal carriers, we cope with all of those. (But unlike postal carriers, we don’t have Sundays off, and we’re not facing the possibility of a second day per week off in the next round of budget cuts either.) So inevitably, some days are not so great for no discernible reason.

And in truth, much of this summer has been like that for me. My long weekend runs, of anywhere from four to twelve miles, have been great, and the half-marathon I ran last month was pure delight. But every weekday morning I head out around 6:30 a.m. for a 2-miler, and those have been just okay this summer. I’ve felt tired and creaky most mornings, and often the bugs have been insistent and the humidity oppressive. Because I don’t bother to eat or caffeinate before my 2-mile runs the way I do for longer ones, I just don’t seem to have any spring in my step. And that’s another thing: I need new running shoes.

So Judy Mick is absolutely right: some days aren’t much fun. And that reality can make streak running all the more challenging; a couple of times this summer I’ve found myself thinking that if this was what running were always like, I wouldn’t bother to do it.

But most of the time I don’t think about it at all. Because that’s the perverse reality of streak-running: once you’ve committed to a daily run, 365 days a year, no questions asked, you stop thinking about whether or not you feel like going running.

And for me, that’s a good thing. Because some days, I don’t. But I don’t even notice that anymore, because I don’t ask myself. I just go. And that’s another day for the streak log. Someday, I’ll decide to stop. But for now, I’ll just put up with the not-so-great days. Or I’ll keep on ignoring them and focus instead on the great days. The memorable days. The days that make the not-so-great days not really matter all that much.