Sunday, August 13, 2006

30 days on the beach can change a man's life . . .

I remember when I learned the power of leisure. It was ten years ago this month. I had been working too many hours for too many years, flamed out, and fled to the beach for a month to get away from it all. Those 30 days changed my life.

I remember this clearly because at the time I was recording my life -- writing a newspaper column in my “spare time”. After the trip, I wrote a column I entitled, “30 days on the beach can change a man’s life.” It went something like this:

Thirty days on the beach seems more like two or three. Days drift into nights from which mornings are born and the cycle repeats itself, endlessly, like the tide.

No matter how long you are here, you can always tell day from night. But, soon the date becomes unimportant, and then the day of the week is, too, forgotten;

"Is this Tuesday?" I asked, mak¬ing conversation.

The lady fondling the lettuce smiled, but said nothing.

"Excuse me," I repeated, "but is this ..."

"I heard you," she said, looking up. "And, no, it; Friday," she said knowingly, like my question was some kind of cheap, pick up line she'd heard before.

"Thanks," I said, turned away, and headed for the cantaloupes.

"Excuse me," she followed, "but are you serious?"

"Yes, I am," holding a cantaloupe in each hand, "melon selection is a serious business."

"No, I meant the day. Did you really not know that today is Friday?"

"Still don't." I paused. "Unless I take your word for it. Want this cantaloupe?" I put the riper of the two in her basket.

"Well, no, not actually."

"Oh," I said, taking the melon back and putting it into my basket.

"It's just that, well, you look, uh, fairly normal," she observed, as if expecting to find a matching physi¬cal defect.

"I object," I said.

"What?" she asked.

"You heard me. I object. I'm a lawyer and I can object. It's my prerogative."

"You? You're a lawyer? No way."


"You don't look like a lawyer," she smiled, a condescending smile.

"What do lawyers look like?"

"I don't know," she replied, off balance, "but they don't have hair down to their shoulders, pierced ears, and they definitely don't wear roller skates into grocery stores dur¬ing business hours."

"They're inline skates, and who told you that?"

She paused, and I could see she was thinking hard, seeking a higher authority. Unsuccessfully.

"Well, no one, but you don't look like any lawyers I know."

She blew off my question, repeating hers.

"Are you sure you're a lawyer?" she asked.

"As sure as you seem to be that today is Friday."

"So, where do you practice?" she cross-examined me.

"I'm practicing now," I said, looking down at my skates.

"I don't mean practicing skating," she snapped.

'But, I do," I said. "I like skating. How about you?"

"I don't skate," she snapped, like I had asked her where she stripped for a living.

"Too bad. Floors in grocery stores like this are perfect, smooth, good to practice your turns," I said as I turned a perfect circle.

"The reason I ask," she said, by then exasperated, "is that I am a lawyer."

"Want a medal?" I asked, look¬ing down into my basket at my two fine cantaloupes, carefully selected, nearly ripe.

"No, it's just that ... I ...," her voice trailed off.

"It's just that you want to know how it's done. Isn't that what you want to know?" I said, looking up into her eyes, still blue, but now tragic.

"Yes," she whispered, "yes."

"How long are you here?"

"Through Sunday."

"Not long enough to learn," I said matter-of-factly.

"Learn? Learn what?"

"Learn how to do his," I said, gesturing to my skates.

"That's not what I meant," she objected.

"Yes, it is. You want to learn the fine art of dropping out. Gotta learn how to skate first, and that takes more than a week."

"Three days," she said stiffly.

"Oh, yeah. I forgot. It's Wednesday."

"Friday," she muttered. "It's Friday."

"You're right," I conceded. "It's Friday. But, until you can forget that fact, you will never learn."

I turned and skated to the check¬out counter, purchased my melons, and forgot it was Thursday before I left the store.

Since that fateful month 10 years ago, work has taken on a different meaning for me. I didn’t stop working like it was a bad habit, but I decided I was no longer my work. Work is simply something I do because I enjoy doing it. My life has been better since the shift.

Others have discovered the same but most have not been so fortunate. I have watched the workplace intently and I regret to report that most people still don’t skate -- they don’t get away at all. I get more Blackberry e-mails from clients ostensibly on vacation than ever before. And this is more than anecdotal perspective. A recent study reports that 25 percent of employees now take “working vacations,” which are not vacations at all; others take no vacations, and 82 percent take 5 or fewer days of vacation per year which is about as close to no time off as you can get without hearing the giant sucking sound of work sucking out your soul.

Why the societal dysfunction? There are many reasons. One is “gun-to-the-head syndrome.” 49 percent of employees aged 25 and younger say they feel “compelled” to stay connected to work when they are not physically present. Interestingly, only 26 percent surveyed from ages 25-34 said they felt similar pressure to do so. In other words, it is getting worse, not better.

While sad, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. Americans spend more time at work than any other people in the developed world. According to the American Institute of Stress, employees in the U.S. spent 40 more hours on the job during the course of 2000 than they did in 1990, and that doesn’t include unpaid overtime.

Regrettably, all this productivity and the bucks that come from it aren’t making us any happier. The U.S. continues to slide further down the world happiness scale each year. One can’t be sure it is all work-related, of course, but one would have to ignore the obvious to believe none of our growing dissatisfaction comes from too much work and too little leisure.

What’s the answer? Only the obvious . . .

Get away. Don’t call, don’t write, don’t take your Blackberry, and don’t take my word for it.

Jerry May, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Nevada in Reno spent the last 15 years studying a group of 3,000 high-achievers in business, medicine, law and athletics. He found that those who incorporate more play into their lives aren't just happier, but have higher self-esteem and less stress, sleep better, and find more joy in life. And, yes, if you must know, they’re more productive, too.

So, buy a pair of skates, disconnect the television, leave the laptop, remove the batteries from your Blackberry, and spend 30 days on the beach if only to figure out what you’re doing and why.


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