Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Checking out and never leaving

(The prompt for today from was to write on being thwarted. I read the prompt this morning and then forgot it. As the day progressed, I considered a story on Jim and the Estherville "cow" but ultimately mock frustration over my seeming inability to begin a vacation trumped. The famous "Hotel California" lyrics inspired some bits of this first draft piece, but when I re-checked the prompt, I realized that perhaps the theme of "thwarted" was with me all along.)

When I worked as a full-time journalist in the late 1980s and 1990s, some basic ground rules were built into vacations:

1. I would not call the office.

2. I would maybe send a post card to the office.

3. I would not be available to answer questions on a story.

Cell phones, e-mails, Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging seem to have rendered such rules obsolete. I know of virtually no one -- journalist, painter, artist, writer, teacher, lawyer, doctor -- who could say with all honesty that such ground rules can still be followed. With the technology comes the 24/7 work environment, a space where hours can be set with autonomy and independence. This creates a lot of freedom, and a lot of burden. In short, the workplace has morphed into a borderless, unprotected space where both the hours of work and locations of work tasks become infinite.

Vacations no longer begin. Perhaps, however, they never end.

In December 2012, a colleague at the college where I work posted a story on Facebook that revealed one strategy for workplace success: Use up all of your vacation time. Don't give back the time off you are owed. The advice rings true for anyone who recalls (with guilt) the stories of children growing up not ever getting to know their parents because their parents were, uhh, always working. At the time that I read the article, I had been in my present position for almost three years. I had accumulated more than forty days of vacation and more than forty days of sick leave. I had used virtually none of it.

Because we are allowed to carry over a maximum of forty days into a new year, any time that I earned but didn't use in 2013 would essentially be rejected earnings.

I don't have children, but I do have nieces and nephews, young cousins, and aging parents and uncles and aunties, and scores of friends around the world who are perhaps growing up and away from me, without me giving them the chance to get to know me. One way of rectifying that dilemma would be to take some vacation time to spend with them.

But is such a thing possible? Can we check out, and really leave?

How did I pile up so much vacation?

I travel numerous times a year, and I spend many of my winter mornings luxuriating beside fireplace in my house instead of shivering in an office or having a breakfast of pancakes under the maple trees in early summer instead of sipping lukewarm coffee from a plastic to-go container. I have an office to which I have 24/7 access. If no appointments or meetings interfere, each day is mine to shape as I like. I can go swimming at 2 p.m. I can start my work day at 8 p.m. if that's my preference.

One might conclude that I never work, that I'm on vacation all the time.

The truth is that I always work. For two and a half years, I didn't take vacation time because I did not (and still do not) know how to differentiate vacation and work.

I spent five weeks last summer writing a book. Was it vacation or was it work?

I spent the Veteran's Day weekend in New York City with hip-hop artists, educators, and community organizers talking about hip-hop education for the early twenty-first century. Vacation or work?

Three times between 2011 and 2012, I was at retreat centers in Indiana and Corpus Christie, Texas, discussing teaching strategies, scholarship, and the opportunities and challenges associated with being an Asian American in a predominantly Causcasian work environment. Was that rejuvenation or intense work?

"I haven't used my vacation time because I don't know what I'd do," I confessed to some of my colleagues last September when the regular activities of the college calendar began starting up again.

A couple of them nodded sympathetically. Two of the more senior ones, however, shook their heads with disapproval.

"Take a trip," one of them advised.

"Or stay home," the other one suggested. "Spend an entire day in your garden. Watch a movie. Read a book. Go for a bicycle ride, or just vegetate on your couch."

Perhaps the term "vacation" needs re-articulation. Spending a day in the garden is actually my work. At least in part. I blog about herbs and vegetables that my husband and I grow, and my ruminations about slow-food and simple living find their source in my intellectual work in fields as diverse as political economy, racial and ethnic studies, feminist theory, and social justice. The garden even served as metaphor for a two-minute video I created on "Why I Teach" that found its way into my dossier for my first reappointment. Soon, I will begin creating a course with colleagues on "Webs of Sustainability" that will incorporate discussions of backyard gardening into its content. Without a doubt, being in the garden is pleasurable. So is reading a wonderfully crafted student essay. So is working with a promising advisee to define and map out a plan for reaching personal and professional goals. Just because something is pleasurable doesn't make it non-work.

Watch a movie? Is there a way to watch a movie without thinking about how its story relates to a class you've taught or are thinking about teaching, or a writing project that you're involved with?

A bicycle ride? How can I ride a bike without pondering the geography of the local environment and the human social and cultural elements embedded in it?

"Intellectual labor has no time off," one colleague explained. Quoting the famous words of the cultic Eagles song we both grew up with, she added, "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave."

The truth of the statement hit home as September stretched into October, and the book manuscript that I had hoped to wrap up in late August followed me into fall. I was making progress, but I was not quite done. The manuscript needed time, and so did other duties: teaching, advisee needs, committee appointments, conference presentations, and other overdue writing projects. I berated myself for not writing faster in the summer when I thought I had had the time to write, and for letting "vacation-like pursuits" like gardening, barbecues, and long walks in the evening interfere with the "work".

"Enjoy your vacation," said one student in an e-mail to me after I had told her that I did not have immediate access to her records because I was in Florida visiting my parents. She went on to add that she herself had never had a vacation, and had hoped that this was one reward that earning a bachelor's degree would allow her to reap. I couldn't really find a way to explain to her that I wasn't really on vacation entirely because even though I was in Florida (in February), I was reading e-mail, assessing student work, writing a chapter in the book manuscript, and prepping content for a soon-to-start course.

But maybe this was a vacation because it was work against the template of a more relaxed life. In between the e-mail responses, student assignments, writing, and course prep were long walks on the beach, swims in the ocean, and naps on a towel stretched over sand. Not to mention quality time with my parents and my husband, who had traveled down to Florida with me.

The book manuscript did get finished and submitted to a prospective publisher. The publisher subsequently put it under contract, and editors requested a new round of revisions. Not wishing to repeat the stress of carrying a lingering writing project past the summer into fall, I decided I would use several of those accumulating vacation days to leave the office and get the revising done. I would start on May 13, and finish up around June 20.

Only I'm not on vacation yet. E-mails still beg for attention. New students have new questions. Other students await answers. Colleagues seek my input on work-related matters. It all makes me feel quite important, even though a part of me knows that there's very little in life that's so important that it cannot wait.

But I have taken a few first steps. I have turned on the alert that informs others that I will be out of the office for some time (even if I am not). I have divided time the past few days into sleep (lots of it), exercise (a fair amount), planting, writing, and cooking. I worked on the manuscript this afternoon, even as scores of other tasks clamored for attention. I will get to them, as I can, with the understanding that even as I have (sort of) checked out, I have not left.

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