Summer is over.
School has started back, Labor Day has come and gone, the sun traces a lower path in the sky, and the autumnal equinox is upon us. The sweet smell of tea olive mixed with the evening light evokes a reverent nostalgia for something unnameable in my heart. It seems appropriate now to wrap up my blog series, What I Learned on Summer Vacation.
In my last post, I ruminated on the benefits of not taking action; that is, not always accepting the first offer or option. In this final post, I briefly turn my attention, first, to the importance of being present and second, to not letting one’s emotions get the better of you.
Every Day I Get in the Queue: Too Much, Magic Bus!
My mother, the organizer and grand poohbah of our family trips, loves guided tours. What you lose in flexibility and freedom, you gain in convenience: the very definition of modern life! You’re up at the crack of dawn every day, you experience breakfasts like you’ve never seen before, and over time you begin unconsciously to queue up for the bus with no prompting. Once aboard all you need do is be present for the ride, whether in body alone or both body and mind.
On board, you can expect some combination of silent meditation watching the world go by with increasingly intrusive and diminishingly interesting travel commentary from your guide. It’s just the nature of the beast. Being conscious of the absurdity of group travel somehow creates a deeper and more satisfying experience. In other words, it makes it a lot more fun.
Guided tours normally cater to an older, often retired demographic. This trip to see our National Parks in the western U.S. was no different. In the handful of tours I have been lucky enough to enjoy, my family often has both the youngest and the largest number of members on the tour. This in some ways hinders one of the implicit points of group travel – socializing with others like yourself – but it also means you are able to share the silliness of the experience with people who helped create your sense of humor and worldview.
Words of Wisdom
By the mid-point of this summer bus trip one female retiree, a former superintendent of a U.S. school district said my wife reminded her of her younger self. During one conversation about life and professional success as a woman this individual remarked that in all her years she never met a person who said, “I wish I’d worked more.” This simple message hit my wife and me like a ton of bricks. Were we falling into the trap of working too much?
Our American culture today too often embraces the supposedly beneficial notion of connectivity: always being available and always being on. The theoretical myth of this lifestyle is that it somehow, magically creates better work/life balance. But is this really what’s happening?
You can take a day off, get home early, or work from home, true, but connectivity’s price of admission is steep: you must be available at a moment’s notice for any and all “emergencies.” For all of our technological progress, Americans work just as much if not more than they ever have in the past. And if health and economic statistics are to be believed, it’s not helping us very much. When at work, work hard, yes, but don’t we also deserve to disengage from our professional lives?
When on Vacation, Be on Vacation
Bracketing the social considerations implicit in work it’s worth pondering the following question about our efficient, multitasking productivity: represented best by so-called smart phones that allow us to be both present and absent at the same time, a regular Schrodinger’s cat; is all of this efficiency and connectivity helping us to be more fully human?
Multitasking is a necessary and vital skill, but there is a fine line between multitasking and just being distracted. A cure for the ills of modern stress is to allow our bodies and brains the experience of less distraction and more presence. We can learn a lot from slowing down and simply doing one thing really well, even if that thing happens to be a member of a guided bus tour through national parks accompanied by retired strangers.
I think those of us who have the luxury of experiencing vacation can attest to the experience as being somehow qualitatively different than everyday life. For that reason alone it is worth experiencing the vacation state of being without the distraction of one’s “real life,” whether that’s work, school, or simply taking care of business.
Therefore, I submit that when on vacation, just be on vacation. Keep it simple sweetheart. Leave everything else behind and just be where you are.
The Importance of Milk Shakes
Entering Bryce Canyon towards the end of our trip we stopped for lunch along with every other tourist in the state of Utah. We patiently waited in line for about 30 minutes in hopes of consuming anything palatable and so I decided to reward myself with a milk shake.
My wife and I met in New York City when there was still a Howard Johnson’s in Times Square. Seriously, there was a Howard Johnson’s in Times Square! In the midst of all the energy created and consumed by New York, falling in love is an oasis in the sterile desert of hyper-reality that is contemporary Manhattan. And milk shakes can be helpful in fostering the falling.
On one of our first dates we shared a milk shake at the now defunct Times Square Howard Johnson’s. It was late, we were hungry, and we wanted something fast and easy. I still remember how my wife tilted her head just so as she bent to take a sip from her straw. I was smitten. As I said, milk shakes are very important!
Milk Shakes Worth Crying Over
Fast forward ten years or so to Bryce Canyon: my milk shake order had been forgotten by our waiter so I had to trek back to the counter to retrieve it. Excited, I returned to the table only to discover that the frozen concoction was too dense to consume. I nearly passed out trying to use my straw. Is there no justice in this world?!?!
I was cranky and pouty at this point in our trip and complained about the injustice of it all. I can nurse resentment with the best of them and I was headed down the highway to the danger zone of self-pity. Luckily, I was justly mocked by my wife and I snapped out of my first world self-pity in time to enjoy the wonders of the canyon. We even were able to watch as a storm rolled in and consumed the area. What a sight that was!
I was able to enjoy the awesome power of that experience by choosing to let go of my disappointment about the milk shake. To be fair, I wore my King Baby crown for longer than I’m proud of, but I was able to let go of my myopic tour-induced crankiness to be present for myself, my family, and my surroundings. Hallelujah!
Feelings Aren’t Facts
Emotion regulation is a paradox. On the one hand, it’s important to acknowledge or feel your feelings. At the same time, it’s just as important to keep in mind the transient nature of emotions. Feelings aren’t facts, true, but they sure pack a wallop.
There are strategies to aid one’s regulation of affect (e.g., identifying and naming the feeling, observing the situation from another perspective, getting help to co-regulate, distraction, etc.). However you choose to handle intense feelings, willingness might just be the first step. I must be willing to allow my emotions the opportunity to meander and change.
In the case of my Bryce Canyon milk shake, I eventually discovered that this milk shake was not worth crying over.
What I Learned This Summer
I hope that you have gained something from my vacation ruminations. As a reminder, here are the life lessons I took away from my summer vacation this year.
- Have boundaries, but be flexible.
- Seek out novel experiences.
- Don’t always accept your first option.
- Be on vacation when on vacation.
- Don’t cry over bad milk shakes.