13 Weekends

A blog about memory & summer by Matt Raw

Working Vacation

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Working Vacation

On the previous episode of 13 Weekends, I left you in Martha’s Vineyard after Maggie’s uncle’s wedding. We stayed behind after the wedding, taking full advantage of the empty space in the house and Tim’s neverending generosity. With Wi-Fi at the house, my plan was to work remotely during the week, which seemed like a great idea when we were planning the trip. What could be better? I’d get work done in advance of our August trip to Iowa and we’d get to stay an extra week in an otherwise unaffordable joint with easy beach access. Parfait!

The reality turned out to be… not bad, necessarily, but not ideal either. While my productivity was fine and I got done the work I needed to get done, it was incongruous to work in a place surrounded by people who had done everything they could to flee their working life, however temporarily. The week just never felt quite right.

Here’s what I know about vacations. When I was a kid, my parents would usually take a summer vacation to Madeira Beach, which is a little beach outside of Tampa on the Gulf of Mexico. I have no idea how our family found this spot, but year after year, we packed up the van and drove (!) down from Iowa for 2 or even 3 weeks of Vacation.

My grandparents on my mom’s side always came with us. Half the fun was convincing them to come down in the first place, they would make a big production about being too old, no, last year was the last year, you don’t want us slowing you down—this would sometimes drag out for weeks. We’d do our best to convince them that we wanted them to come with us. We truly did; I remember that it was a blast to have them along. Anyway, they always caved and took the trip with us, even Grandma the year after Grandpa died, when it couldn’t possibly have been harder.

They had nothing to worry about in terms of slowing us down. We did nothing on these vacations, and loved it. We sat by the pool (very odd in retrospect because, hey, there’s an ocean 100 feet away), we ate lunchmeat sandwiches and drank strawberry soda pop, and then—this was the best part—went out for dinner every night, preferably to a restaurant where you ordered your meal by the pound.

These were the vacations I knew: people escaping their working lives to eat to sit by the pool, do nothing, and a lot of buttery seafood once the sun went down. I don’t mean that in a judgmental way. It’s what I knew and loved and it took me a very long time of living on my own to realize that there was any other way to vacate. There was work and there was vacation and never the two would meet.

Back to the Vineyard, late afternoon the Sunday after the wedding. The tide of rich people is going out and we’re left behind. Weekenders are pushing onto the dock, loud whistles announcing the departure of each ferry are more frequent, and a small air force of jets zoom away from the island’s airport as quickly as they arrived the previous Thursday.

We watched the island empty and then on Monday morning I got to work. I set up at a small desk in our room—actually, let me digress one more time. We were in a giant house, like 5,500 square feet giant. Our Brooklyn apartment doesn’t have anything close to that kind of acreage (400 square feet, depending on how you measure). One unexpected effect of having all this house to ourselves was that we used very little of it. We didn’t even realize it until the week was almost over, but we spent almost all our time in the house cozied up in our room in the back corner of the 3rd floor. Or on the front porch, we knew enough not to let that opportunity go to waste. Entire wings of the house went unused, though. We stopped to think about it once and got really unnerved about being the only people in this giant space. How do people do it?

Anyway, so I set up a tidy little workspace in our room with a chair that would fall apart if I leaned back and got to work. I realized on the first day that it was not going to work well, but not for the reasons I would have guessed. Yes, I could hear the ocean and see the beach, but it wasn’t a huge distraction. The problem was that it didn’t feel like work was being done anywhere on the island (unless you count the brisk retail business of selling “MASSHOLE” t-shirts). Just lots of people on the beach, swimming in the ocean, drinking colorful things on porches mid-afternoon.

The atmosphere of leisure really got to me. I wasn’t prepared to just sit around, I didn’t want to just sit around, it wasn’t what I came expecting to do since I knew I would be working all week. I would go out for my afternoon iced coffee and find myself blowing past slow-poke tourists downtown, weaving in and out of the crowded sidewalk with my public transportation face on, like some New Yorker. I knew I was the one who needed to adjust, but I couldn’t. Imagine the inverse, sunbathing in Midtown, and maybe you can get a sense for how out-of-whack everything felt for me.

It wasn’t really Maggie’s speed either, and she was antsy to get back to her work at home. It made me realize two things. The first was that I shouldn’t work in a place where no one else is working. The second is how unsuited to the leisurely life I’ve become. Even if I had been on the island without a week’s worth of work to do, I know it wouldn’t have felt right to just hit the beach. We need something to do. Not work necessarily, but something to go to, something new to experience, or something challenging to think about.

I still love the beach, and every time I’m on a beach I think fondly of the Florida vacations of my youth. But, apparently, things change. I can still sit on the beach and do nothing with anyone. Just not for very long, it turns out.

2 Responses to Working Vacation

  1. Lesley Wright says:

    Matt,
    I absolutely get what you are saying. I have lost the ability to relax. this past weekend, after the insanity of hosting RAGBRAI in Grinnell, I knew I needed to chill out and unwind, but by Sunday I was completely cranky. When I turned to face this reality, I realized that it just felt WRONG to do nothing. Even it it was the right thing to be doing.

    My husband grew up spending his summers at the beach. Going there always makes me anxious–what am I going to do??? I have learned, if we stay long enough, that I begin to get into the rhythm of the long slow days, but I’ve not reached the point where it feels right. Still, I look with longing on the folks who seem to know how to turn it all off for a week and really vacate.

    Perhaps we need to adopt the European system and just send the entire country on vacation for a month. If everyone does it, maybe we’ll get it!

    • Matt says:

      “Still, I look with longing on the folks who seem to know how to turn it all off for a week and really vacate.”

      Yes, this is it exactly! I rationalize the feeling by congratulating myself that I’ve surrounded myself with work that I want to get back to as quickly as possible. It doesn’t always work, but it helps.