(For reading in Chinese, please scroll down to the end of the English text.)
(For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing, often abbreviated as CQ, is pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring. CQ is a megacity of 30 million people in south-central China, on the Yangtze River.)
From the 18th-Floor Homestead
(My apologies. This is a little longer piece than usual but some ideas are difficult to compress into a short message.)
I find myself with another sense of déjà vu… with a slight twist. When I wrote the article below, we were still living in the blissfully ignorant pre-pandemic era. Now, in August of 2020, as I watch my wife and son preparing for another short trip, the same feelings are there but with a heightened level of concern added.
Like last year, as I anticipated my wife and son being gone for a few days, I was thinking about what I would do to fill those unexpected few days of personal freedom. Unlike last year, however, in 2020, I have the additional factor of being worried about their safety. Yes, I know, everything is pretty calm (virus-wise) in our area currently. The reports say that there are very few cases of the Covid-19 virus to worry about. However, the world has changed – and I have changed with it. I don’t know if I will ever regain that feeling of comfort and confidence as I blithely wish them a good trip and a nice and enjoyable holiday for a few days – then I turn away without further thoughts of their safety or even their return.
As you read the following article from the pre-pandemic era, think about how your thinking and your underlying assumptions have also changed. Not all changes are bad; certainly, our current conditions offer ample opportunities to change our behaviors and expectations in positive ways.
Nothing To Do For Six Days
My son and one of his classmates, along with their two mothers, will be making a trip this week to celebrate the Children’s Day holiday. (The two fathers were not invited. I will be – to use the quaint American term, “batching it”, referring to pre-marriage bachelor days.) This trip was an impulse decision by the two mothers, not the result of advance planning and discussions. However, as I was suddenly presented with this unexpected week of alone time, I was faced with a dilemma: What should I do with this time bonanza? My first impulse was, “I can get a lot of things done this week, while I can work without disturbances or being concerned about school schedules.” On second thought, however…
My wife and son will be out of town for a few days on a spontaneous trip. As you read this article, I am experiencing a week of free time, when I can do almost whatever I wish. Given an unexpected week of mostly free time, my first impulse was to significantly expand my workload while unrestricted by my two roommates’ work and school schedules.
Then I remembered that the French origin of the word “vacation” meant “to vacate”, as in “to leave”. Well, if I could not actually leave home to go on a holiday trip, I could at least leave my regular schedule. Thus, I decided to take these few days as my own vacation, in the sense that they would be a vacation from my regular activities. My objective would be to utilize this opportunity to take a break from the stress of my excessive busyness.
The famous American writer Ernest Hemingway had a charming, semi-rural home in Cuba, Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm). It was thirty minutes from Havana, thirty minutes from deep sea fishing in the Gulf Stream, yet rural enough to ensure privacy and quiet. When visitors would arrive, intent on talking business, Hemingway would insist on a two- or three-day “cooling out”period before dealing with their issues. I’m sure that Hemingway’s guests, accustomed to the faster pace of life in the big cities of New York, Paris, London, and Washington, felt some frustration at being forced to “relax” and defer their business matters, although, ultimately, this was a very effective and highly satisfactory way to conduct negotiations. I decided to incorporate this concept in my holiday week.
My decision to use this week for a vacation of forced relaxation set in motion a whole train of thoughts. During the days before their departure, as I was speculating about what I would do with this unaccustomed freedom, I experienced a couple of moments of revelation. I wonder how many readers of this article would have these same feelings when faced with an impromptu break from their planned schedule.
1) I felt anxiety simply because of the change in my plans and normal routine. Change – even good change and something we choose – can be stressful and our body tends to resist change. (The old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,”comes to mind.) Mental resistance to change can lead to confusion.
2) In addition to the change-induced stress, there is the knowledge that I will have to abandon my familiar, comfortable, efficient routines for a few days. In my normal day, these lists replace a lot of decision making. Having a system in place with checklists and regular schedules is comfortable. I feel a sense of control – something that can be lost when facing an unstructured day. Regimentation can be a good thing.
3) Finally, I felt a sense of guilt at the prospect of a few days of stepping away from my planned activities. I always have so much to do! (Don’t we all?) How can I stop everything and delay completing things that are underway? How much productive work could be finished if I continued working on my various projects while my family was away? Indeed, I could really accomplish much, much more, merely because I would be free of the continual interruptions and distractions when I try to work while they are at home.
That last factor, thinking of how much I could get done, convinced me that a short vacation from my projects and my normal routines is exactly what I deeply needed. If I have become so totally immersed in my work that I feel I cannot find time to take a break, there is something wrong with my priorities. No one is indispensable, and the belief that we must keep running at full speed like a hamster inside a wheel adds immeasurable amounts of stress and pressure to run even faster. When we begin to delude ourselves and rationalize, it truly is time to step away for a short interlude, to have a self-imposed Hemingway “cooling out” break.
But, isn’t it ironic that“The Simple Life, even a few days of it, requires advance planning? Perhaps it tells me that I have gone too far in creating routines and systems. Perhaps planning my days in infinitesimal detail is not adding to my productivity, only to my stress.
After several days of preparation and speculation about how I would enjoy my few days of alone time, here are my objectives:
Minimum routines – only the true essentials
No planned exercise – impulse, spontaneous
No writing – brain on vacation too
No publishing or marketing decisions
No planning of everything in advance
No housecleaning binge
No planning and getting organized!
As much as possible, stay offline and non-digital
Possible Wild Indulgences: Extra coffee breaks, movies, reading, fast food, catching up on correspondence, cooking for myself, speculation about possible future paths, reading old journals, moving slowly, unwinding, long walks down Memory Lane. Go to dinner with a friend – if any of my busy, busy friends can get free. Fishing?
Mantra: KEEP IT SIMPLE
Gordon MacQuarrie wrote a wonderful short story called “Nothing to Do for Three Weeks”. At the end of this present week, when my two roommates return, I hope I can say (as Gordon MacQuarrie wrote), “I used every day for what it was best suited. Can anyone do better?”
And, what about you, dear readers? If suddenly released for a few days from the constraints of your routines, jobs, schedules, commitments, and all the other busyness that fills our lives… what would you do in your “cooling out” period? Maybe the fact that this concept is such a dramatic change from my normal life is trying to tell me something important. Maybe we can all learn from my momentary discomfort brought about by vacation-dread.
(Back to August 2020)
Another change in the post-pandemic world:
I have an American friend who lives in China. Last winter, he flew to California for a visit. Bad timing. He and his wife were in California when the pandemic struck. They couldn’t return to China; they are, as of this writing, still in California. My friend recently wrote that they will return to China on October 1. One-way tickets are now 4,000 USD!!! If you can get them. The flight arrangements are subject to cancellation by the US government, the Chinese government, and the airline – and, of course, the pandemic may make permanent changes to their travel plans.
It is very likely that we will tell our grandchildren of a lifestyle that no longer exists – that we can remember a time when international flight was cheap, convenient, and safe. Truly, it was travel for the masses. We can tell those grandkids about honeymoon trips to exotic locations, or journeys to remote areas where we could actually experience how other people lived, and of countries whose economies were based upon expecting large numbers of tourists. Your little kiddies will hear you expound on business trips that suddenly arose – inconvenient, intense, and not-at-all glamorous. Amazed at your tales, they will not be able to comprehend how a trip to another country was arranged casually – sometimes spontaneously – and with comfortable expectations of safe travel, warm welcomes at the destination, and unencumbered return to our homes.
The grandkids will hear those stories – but don’t expect them to believe them. More likely, they will better relate to travel experiences of our remote ancestors (as recently as 100 years ago) where a long journey was probably a one-way trip. You moved to a new location after a long, uncomfortable, perhaps dangerous journey. You lost contact with your old family and friends and started a new life. If, perchance, you did make a trip simply to visit someone, you might stay for several months instead of just a few days as we did (pre-pandemic) because a trip that took days or weeks was difficult to justify unless you stayed for an extended period after arrival. Traveling men – soldiers, traveling salesmen, diplomats, sailors – were seen as a separate and somewhat exotic breed of nomads. They were like us… but not like us. Our life has changed, probably irretrievably, thanks to the pandemic. As I wrote in China Bound, “Not good, not bad, just different.” What can you do to optimize your new opportunities – and what would you do if you had a few days away from your usual routine?
我的儿子和他的一个同学，还有他们的两位母亲，将在本周去一趟，庆祝儿童节假期。(两位父亲没有被邀请。我将–用美国的一个古怪的术语 “批吧”，指的是婚前的光棍节）。) 这次旅行是两位母亲一时冲动的决定，并非事先计划和讨论的结果。然而，当我突然迎来这突如其来的一周独处时间时，我面临着一个两难的选择：我应该如何处理这个时间红利？我的第一冲动是：”这周我可以做很多事情，同时我可以不受打扰，也不用担心学校的时间安排而工作。” 然而，转念一想…
然后我想起 “假期 “这个词的法语来源是 “腾出”，意思是 “离开”。好吧，如果我不能真正离开家去度假旅行，至少可以离开我的正常行程。因此，我决定把这几天作为自己的假期，也就是说，这几天将是我正常活动的假期。我的目的是利用这个机会，从过度忙碌的压力中解脱出来。
美国著名作家欧内斯特-海明威在古巴有一个迷人的半乡村住宅–Finca Vigia（望乡农场）。它距离哈瓦那三十分钟车程，距离湾流深海捕鱼三十分钟车程，但农村的环境却足以保证私密性和安静。当来访者来到这里，打算谈生意时，海明威会坚持在处理他们的问题之前，先给他们两三天的 “冷却期”。我敢肯定，海明威的客人习惯了纽约、巴黎、伦敦和华盛顿等大城市较快的生活节奏，对被迫 “放松 “和推迟处理他们的业务问题感到有些沮丧，不过，最终，这是一种非常有效和非常令人满意的谈判方式。我决定将这一理念融入我的假期周。
3）最后，我对从计划中的活动中走出来的几天的前景感到内疚。我总是有那么多事情要做! (我们不都是这样吗?)我怎么能停下一切，耽误完成正在进行的事情呢? 如果我在家人不在的时候继续进行我的各种项目，又能完成多少富有成效的工作呢？事实上，我真的可以完成很多很多的工作，只是因为当我试图在他们在家时工作时，我将摆脱不断的干扰和分心。
最后一个因素，想到我可以完成多少工作，使我相信，从我的项目和正常的日常工作中短暂的休假正是我深深需要的。如果我已经完全沉浸在工作中，以至于觉得找不到时间休息一下，那我的优先级就有问题了。没有人是不可或缺的，我们必须像轮子里面的仓鼠一样保持全速运转的信念，给我们增加了不可估量的压力，让我们跑得更快。当我们开始自欺欺人，理智化的时候，确实是时候离开一下，来个短暂的插曲，来个海明威式的自我 “冷却 “休息。
口头禅:KEEP IT SIMPLE