Tuesday, February 21, 2006


After arriving at work this morning and making a cup of coffee (decaf hazelnut with cream and honey), I sat at my desk, stultified and frozen in front of the computer. My thought process revolved around the notion that I didn't want to be there, and I felt a profound gravitational force of planetary proportions drawing me back to home, the warm bed, the computer, daytime television, anything to escape from the need to work with nose to grindstone. I left a voicemail for Mary and told her I felt like a kindergartner who just wants to be home with Mommy, curled up with a book in front of the TV. I even flashed back to my first day of pre-kindergarten---one of my earliest memories---when my brother and father dropped me off at school on a late August morning so that I and my five-year-old peers could get a small taste of what school would feel like. As I watched them walk away, I yearned to be outside with them, walking down the path through the woods back to our house and the openness of the day, not the closed-in quality of the classroom that smelled like glue and urine. Luckily, my office does not smell like glue and urine, but the din of phones, beepers and idle chatter did little to relieve my early morning sorrow.

I quickly read my personal emails, one missive from a friend who wanted to know when I was going to take a vacation. I emailed her back and explained that, having used up my vacation time for the survival strategy of long weekends throughout the winter, I now have about 10 hours accrued, and will need to knuckle down and not take any time off to speak of until summer, as long as I hold onto the vision of two weeks off in August, my favorite time of year when I revel in the enjoyment of my birthday and summer's cauldron (apologies to Andy Partidge). I mused in my email that this is the conundrum of the post-modern worker: work with nose to proverbial stone for months on end, saving up every scrap of time for that longed-for summer vacation, a paltry two weeks which then once again berefts one of any further time off. Add to this the sly idea of "Earned Time", in which one's sick time, personal time, vacation, and holidays are all lumped into one "bank" of time off, and the worker is faced with precious little vacation time if, perhaps, the flu cost him or her a week of work in the dead of winter, or some personal days for medical appointments chewed up even more of those precious days away from the desk, or the death of a family member necessitated some unexpected additional days off from work.

My European friends enjoy at least six weeks of vacation each year, and barely a season goes by when they aren't going off to Spain for holiday, dashing to France for a weekend, or spending a week on their favorite Dutch island. Europeans understand the value of family and time away from the workaday world, and no matter how much Americans blather about "family values", families are not highly valued if they don't have substantial leisure time to spend together. If one were to create a lifestyle in the States with ample vacation time, one would need to be either well-off, a misanthrope who eschews normal society, a vagabond, or a person who is willing to eschew the trappings of middle-class life and have few possessions in the interest of living lightly on the earth. If one chooses the middle path---work, home, kids, modest possessions---one pays the price. Of course, the person who avoids those trappings pays a price as well, and we all must live with the consequences of our choices. Sure, I could have created a life of barefoot fancy in the Florida Keys doing massage on the beach, but I've chosen this lifestyle for a reason. (What reason was that, again?) For better or worse, no matter what my choices, the right to complain is universal and sacrosanct.

So, here we are on a Tuesday evening after a three-day weekend (when, I remind you, Monday's eight hours of holiday were deducted from my "earned time" bank of hours), and I spent the day lost in the details of my work and the soap operas of my patients' lives. Naturally, my own needs and yearnings were subsumed by the needs of others, but as the day drew to a close and I drove towards home, I realized that this grind---which puts food on the table and pays the bills---sometimes feels like it is grinding down my spirit. With Mary out for the evening, I embrace the quiet of the house, the sleepy dogs, the whoosh of the heat through the vents, and the notion that the next twelve hours---even if spent mostly preparing next week's lecture for school and then asleep in bed---are mine, and the grindstone is, for the moment, at a virtual standstill.
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