Last week, I had my longest vacation from work in some time. I scheduled eleven full days, from Christmas Eve until Jan. 4, with basically nothing to do except recharge my batteries.
We had chosen to hang around the house and avoid the stress of holiday travel for several reasons. One, most of my extended family lives in upstate Wisconsin, which you can visit only if you can find it under eight feet of snow. My wife’s mother lives closer, about 200 miles away in Charleston, S.C., but the Christmas Day storm that paralyzed much of the South made us consider how much cozier it was sitting by the home fires than behind an 18-wheeler spraying salt all over your car.
“I’ll just piddle around the house,” I told my wife and son. Beth pointed out that technically, “piddling” is defined as “urinating,” and I had another think coming if that’s all I was planning to do with my vacation. So I quickly changed my plans and decided to “putter” around the house instead.
For most men my age, puttering implies a vaguely constructive activity, wherein you shuffle from room to room in your robe and slippers, stopping occasionally to repair an electrical outlet or clean out a shed. Somehow, though, I just couldn’t get motivated. Doing next to the nothing struck me as so much more appealing and, frankly, after a long and stressful year, I had earned the right to do little more than what my autonomic nervous system demanded.
Just try telling that to my Lutheran upbringing. By the day after Christmas, I was riddled with guilt about being so unproductive. Disrepair surrounded me at every turn, and yet trying to impose order on my decaying home by doing “chores” seemed so contrary to the holiday/vacation spirit. Sure, I might feel compelled to turn the tap off after getting a glass of water, or combing my hair every few days, but any more responsibility and civilization than that was too much trouble.
For several days, I followed an established routine that felt for a while like it was working. I’d sleep late, then get up for about an hour or so to eat a bowl of cereal, read the newspaper and watch SportsCenter highlights, then head back to bed. After waking from this first of many naps that would soon follow, I might run out to the store to pick up a few items, or possibly take out the garbage, or maybe even both. It wasn’t much, but it provided enough personal fulfillment that I could head back to bed again for some reading.
The book I’d chosen for this respite was Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier. The author spends close to 500 pages detailing the drive that he and two companions took across thousands of miles of wintry steppes. There was great satisfaction to be found in reading about the bitterly cold hardship being endured on the paper in front of me, while I snuggled deeper into my overstuffed comforter. He’s eating herring-and-black-bread sandwiches, camping along side mosquito-ravaged riverbeds, and tromping through swamps and tundra, while I’m pretty sure the toes on my left foot have somehow come out from under the blanket and are starting to feel a slight chill. We both face challenges and find ways to overcome them.
I plow ahead through the Russian-choked prose. I’m as determined to finish the travelogue before it’s due back at the library, as Frazier is determined to reach the Far East of Siberia where it butts up against the frozen Bering Straits.
“Khan Kuchum was from a noble family known as the Shaybanids, who traced their lineage back to Shaybani, a brother of Batu,” Frazier writes. “The Shaybanids often fought with the Taibugids, a non-Genghisite family also of western Siberia. Kuchum had killed the Taibugid khan, Edigei, and taken over the Siberian khanate not long before Yermak and his men arrived.”
And again, much like the doomed Tatars who are about to fall from centuries of power over half of Asia, I have fallen off to another nap.
By about the sixth day of this aimless routine, the guilt has morphed into a restlessness that is proving a little harder to choke down. I’m watching a recorded replay of the previous night’s Eagles-Vikings NFL game. I think it’s Wednesday but as the announcers keep describing the contest as a “special Tuesday night edition of Sunday Night Football,” I find myself rapidly losing touch with reality. When I’ve reached the point where I don’t even know what day it is, I’ve slipped pretty far off the grid.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long after this that my son dropped his cell phone into the toilet.
Normally, this would be cause for considerable consternation and more than a little plumbing repair, but we were able to rescue the sodden BlackBerry before it went the way of similar crap. We dried it off, and started pushing buttons to see which ones would work and which ones merely squished. I called the phone to see if it would still ring. It didn’t, but at least there was the hopeful message of “Incoming Call” displayed on the screen. On my end of the communication, all I could make out was my son’s voicemail prompt, gurgling that he was not with his phone right now but I could leave a message at a tone that sounded more like the song of the humpback whale.
Now, however, I had a mission to rouse me from my inertia. We would go to the office of our local wireless provider, we would wisely consider the sensible options priced within our budget, and then we would throw all prudence out the window and splurge on a new iPhone 4.
It may have cost me several hundred dollars, but I was stirred from my doldrums and began feeling much better. I was still doing little that was truly constructive, but I had reached such depths of dormancy that going to the Y for a session on the treadmill and playing a few rounds of online Scrabble now seemed pretty ambitious. I even called and checked in at the office, and volunteered to work a shift on New Year’s Monday, shortening my extended vacation by one day.
Maybe not the same as negotiating that endless trek from Novosibirsk through Ust-Manya and following the Baikal-Amur mainline of the Trans-Siberian Railroad all the way to Severobaikalsk. But it’s a new year and I have to save my energy for all the challenges of 2011.