I could never be a teacher, mostly because I couldn't handle having two months off from work and then having to go back. I’d enjoy the last week of June, start looking over my shoulder in July, and by August I’d protest my imminent return by handcuffing myself to a beach chair. I find it easier just to work the whole time.
I used to have a similar attitude about vacation. When I went on vacation, I endeavored to have a good time, but not so good where I would be dreading re-entry into my everyday life. Better to be tethered loosely to emails and conference calls, the occasional stressful flutter still preferable to a flood of angst the Sunday you return. Warped, I know.
I’ve gotten better at vacation, but it took a number of years of being pretty bad at it. When we were fresh out of college, vacations were tempered by a lack of money, and the accompanying restlessness one feels early in a career. As a young newspaper reporter, when you felt only as good as your last byline and a week on the sidelines could be deemed a sign of weakness, I still called into my editor daily just to feign interest in whatever was going on. I would be in a motel in Maine headed off to do whatever and the distracted editor would rush me off the phone. I should have been grateful, but it only fueled my concern that the world was carrying on fine without me.
When our kids were young, vacations were confined by the parameters of their needs, nap times and kid-friendly foods, and enough room in the trunk for the pack-n-play. They essentially felt like opportunities to spend money we didn't have on fitful nights sleeps in beds that weren’t ours. I’m generalizing, of course. Sprinkled throughout these trips were moments of genuine wonder and joy. But those moments were fleeting, and then someone would have to go to the bathroom.
I had some good vacations as a kid, but the engine behind our annual trips is my wife, who still draws on the blissful memories of her childhood, and is intent on trying to duplicate them. It’s a noble goal seeing how vacations eventually become less about you and more about your kids (although always at locations of your choosing -- whenever my boys mention Disney World, I try to convince them it recently closed down). The pictures Lisa draws of her summer vacations are Rockwellian mosaics of endless days in the water, bike trips into town for ice cream, followed by evening games of hearts on screened-in porches. She is adamant about a beach, and an ocean beach at that. On the few occasions I’ve proposed renting a house by a lake, she scoffs as if I suggested a walk-up apartment in Newark.
The right place has proven elusive. Martha's Vineyard was too expensive, Cape Cod too crowded, the long drive to the Outer Banks too daunting. At the mercy of an unpredictable work schedule and the school calendar, we tend to delay locking in on a location, and by then the options on the rental websites are limited: wildly overpriced, or located 23 miles from the beach, or only available Tuesdays through Thursdays in September.
Location matters for this sort of thing, but I’d argue not as important as the ability to cordon yourself off from whatever your normal life is. When I was finally able to embrace the idea of vacation, it was in recognizing that these respites are healthy, even vital. Otherwise you’re just a guy who was out of the office for a week, and was having a shitty time while he was. People like to build their vacations around experiences, but I’ve grown content basking in the mundane: grilling whatever’s in the fridge, leafing through old books on the coffee table, luxuriating in the outdoor shower for more time than is environmentally sound. A successful vacation is also defined by all the things you’re not doing: I’m not setting my alarm clock, or jamming myself into a subway car, or feeling the slightest bit guilty about a bloody mary followed by a nap at 10 a.m. This addition by subtraction concept also applies to your spaces. The house we rented this summer in a sleepy coastal Rhode Island town was a fraction the size of our modest real house; it was essentially four adjoining rooms backing up against a small farm. But it felt airier based on everything not there -- our stuff, and our bills, and our individual lives pulling us in disparate directions.
There is something daunting about quarantining four members of a family together for a week, particularly two boys who know how to gnaw at each other like mosquitoes. If I were to post a nakedly honest account of our vacations on Facebook, there would be at least one photo of all four of us staring at an electronic device, and another one of my youngest son child throwing a football at the face of his older brother.
And yet this sort of isolation is necessary. A good family vacation will enable you to fall into rhythm with one another, first out of a lack of options, but eventually out of choice. The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote recently how life's most precious moments are unscripted, and the necessary ingredients for them are proximity and time. His example was a summer vacation with his extended family in which he forced himself to stay the full week rather than seek early asylum.
"People tend not to operate on cue. At least our moods and emotions don’t," Bruni writes. "We reach out for help at odd points; we bloom at unpredictable ones. The surest way to see the brightest colors, or the darkest ones, is to be watching and waiting and ready for them."
In Rhode Island, my boys played hours of wiffle ball in our backyard. At night, after returning home from the beach, we adhered to the same routine: dinner on the patio, then games of cornhole by the fire pit, followed by some cheesy ‘80s comedy. If a good vacation can be defined by the early hour in which I fall asleep in front of the TV, I have the drool stains to prove this one was a rousing success.
But there’s also this: a good vacation doesn’t shield you from the stresses of your everyday life, but fortifies you for them. Recently I went back to work. I set my alarm, and found myself typing while wedged against a very large human on the train. An earlier version of me would have dreaded being tossed so harshly back into reality. A week away enabled me to feel grateful for whatever reality is mine.