Lessons From Vacation

by Alafair Burke

One More Day.  No, that’s not the title of a sequel to this novel, David Nicholls’ One Day, one of my 2010 favorites.

The phrase “one more day” has become something of a running joke between my husband and me, because every time we take a trip, I tend to say as we’re boarding the plane home, “We just need one more day.”

I was never much of a traveler.  My parents, both on academic schedules by then, would throw us in the car as kids and drive around all summer, but once I was on my own, I pretty much stuck to home, taking a trip or two per year, almost always to visit my siblings and/or parents.  I was thirty years old before I had a passport, and then it was only to attend a legal academic conference conveniently scheduled in Barbados.

Once I published my first novel in 2003, however, I started racking up those frequent flier miles.  If memory serves, I went to twenty cities or so for my debut novel.  My UK publisher brought me to London.  It’s not as if book promotion travel gives you any opportunity to know a city.  It’s just airports, hotels, cars, bookstores (yea!), and, if you’re lucky, a walk around the business district. 

Think this:

Not this:

Yet somewhere along that road, I turned into one of those people who likes to travel. I found myself wanting to linger in each city, yearning for time to acclimate to my new surroundings.

But my increasingly uttered “one more day” mantra has me wondering whether I not only like to travel, but need to.

I just opened my credit card bill to learn that in the last month, I booked five different flights, all to be taken before the end of April.  Those five upcoming trips don’t count a law-lecture gig in D.C., a book conference in North Carolina, or other short car-trips I’ll inevitably book on weekends.

I say inevitably because, damn, I’ve turned into one of those people — the type who is always thinking about the next trip.

And I’m not happy about that development.  There’s a thin line between adventurous and restless, and I fear I’ve crossed over it. 

So the question is ‘Why?’  I live in an amazing city.  I love and need the company of my husband and dog.  I like my apartment and my neighborhood and my cabinet full of cozy sweaters. I miss my array of health and beauty products when I’m living out of a carry-on bag with only a quart-size ziploc of stuff to make me purdy.

Some of my travel desires are undoubtedly healthy and legitimate.  I like nice weather. 


Whereas New York currently looks like this:

I enjoy the company of friends and family who live elsewhere.  It’s usually easier for me to go to them than vice versa.

One of my besties, Michael, and I golfing in Florida with another Florida Michael

Some of the Burkes at Burkeapalooza in Banff

But part of me realizes that this new desire to travel is distinctly related to the fact that I now work primarily from my apartment.  When I was still a practicing lawyer, I spent most of my waking hours at a desk or in court.  Once I walked into that courthouse, I cranked.  I was a machine.  I planned my work, and I worked my plan, all so I could leave at a reasonable hour.  I felt freedom hit me when I walked out that door.  Coming home was paradise.  At home, I could relax.  At home, I could turn off and let it all go.  Namaste, sistah.

Now?  Not so much.  Just down the hallway from my seemingly relaxing, minimalist living room is a cluttered office with a to-do stack that averages eight inches high.  In that office is a keyboard that I can always — always — have my hands on for just a few more minutes.  I can type just a few more words.  Finish just one more paragraph so I’ll be a tiny bit closer to the finish line.  In just one apartment, I have two computers, an iPad, and a phone, all constantly downloading emails from five different accounts — emails that if answered now, will not need to be answered later.  

Home is now the office, and the office is now home.  I no longer crank during the day.  I go to the gym.  I walk the dog.  I Facebook and Tweet way, way, way too much.  And I no longer turn it off at a reasonable hour.  I stay at my desk even after the husband happily declares he’s home.  I fiddle with my phone when we’re supposed to be watching a movie.  I take academic work to bed with me and read under the covers with a flashlight.

But, man, when I’m on vacation, I draw clear lines.  I’ll set a word goal on the plane.  The minute my laptop hits the mark, I slam that bad-boy shut and watch me some airplane TV.  I check emails but don’t answer them.  I read for pleasure.  I chill like a vill, baby.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love controlling my own schedule.  When I’m not being Professor Burke at the law school, I like working at home in my PJs with Duffer sitting at my feet.  I’m way, way spoiled.

But I’d like to take the best of my old practice days and pull them into my current teaching-slash-writing existence.  I want to return some urgency to my work day  and bring the chill back to my evenings and weekends.  Even though I’m the boss of me, I want the boss to set some kind of schedule, and I want the employee to stick to it.  In short, I want to draw some psychological lines between work time and me time.

Any suggestions?


20 thoughts on “Lessons From Vacation

  1. Cornelia Read

    I just love that you have Burkespalooza–what a great word, even!

    I think you need to set a book somewhere you really want to travel to that you've never seen yet. Budapest or Nepal or Thailand, say. And then go spend a month there, at least. That's not exactly drawing a boundary between work and play, but it's integrating travel into work in a different way, and gives you a reason to travel "deeply," as I like to say.

  2. MJ

    I'm a lawyer in a law firm, writing creatively in my free time, so I have no suggestions – but hope that some others have good ones I can learn from too! Oh yeah, and I agreed to teach as an adjunct too, in my "free time." Why did I do that?

  3. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    I've been working from home for 23 years, and have no suggestions to add that would be helpful, except having a daily target of some kind – like you do on your trips. Once that's done, I usually stop, even if I'm on a roll, because I know it will make picking it up again tomorrow that little bit easier.

    Apart from that, I'm with you on the working late, being twitchy when I'm not working late, and feeling guilty for things on the To Do list as yet undone.

    Somebody told me recently to make a Done list as well, which includes all the things you sort out during the day that weren't strictly on the To Do list. Gives you a little boost.

    But apart from that, if you DO find out the secret of Zen working from home, please PLEASE tell me ;-]

  4. Debbie

    Sorry Alafair, no real ideas to help only the words self discipline…and who wants to hear that? 🙂 Besides, doesn't that turn leisure time into work…I mean if discipline is involved? Maybe unplugging just one night a week to start? Change usually needs to be slow and steady…maybe you need a twelve step program? 🙂

    I enjoyed working outside the home and coming home to relax. Now I don't have that change, and I get so stir crazy that shopping for groceries has become an outing!

  5. Allison Brennan

    I don't travel much, but like you, when I started going to writers conferences, I wanted to see the sights–but had no time. I've been to NYC six or seven times and haven't done much of anything to SEE the city and do fun stuff. So Toni and I are staying for the weekend between RWA and Thrillerfest so we can do fun stuff. (I tried to do the Disney World thing with my two teenagers at RWA last year, but the weather was miserable.)

    I don't have any suggestions for more travel time. When I DO have free time, I have five kids who want to travel with me (can't leave them at home!) So that means kid stuff. Renting a cabin in Lake Tahoe for a week in the summer. Disneyland (since I'm in California.) And I suspect that will remain the same for several more year.s

  6. Rob Gregory Browne

    There is no hope of setting any kind of schedule. Writers are always working, day in, day out, hour after hour, always thinking, thinking, thinking, about whatever book they're writing or whatever book they're planning to write. Every travel destination, every person we meet, every conversation we have has the potential to be story material and our minds are racing a mile a minute, looking for ways to include them.

    In essence, you will never have free time. The only thing you're ever free of are deadlines, but even those are usually looming in the distance, calling out to you—get to work, asshole.

    If you find a way to beat this disease and work out a normal schedule, let me know.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Rob has just crushed all hope of balance. Not to mention sanity.

    I have been trying to be a little easier on myself because I was starting to worry about a complete collapse if I didn't change something, Setting a minimum page goal per day (unfortunately I have to do this for multiple projects) – and letting the minimum be enough helps on a lot of days. Some days nothing helps.

    And these days all my travel is work related, but I enjoy it.

  8. Alafair Burke

    I have picked up a few tips from others that I'm trying to follow in the new year. I've been using Freedom software, which blocks your Internet access for a specified number of minutes. I've also stopped carrying my laptop into the living room or bedroom. Even using the iPad instead cuts down on the amount of emailing I do during family time. I'm definitely still a work in progress.

  9. Alafair Burke

    Rob, excuse any typos in this comment but I just slit my wrists!

    I set word goals but have always thought of them as minmums, not maximums. it's hard for me to stop on days when I meet them because there are so many days when I fall short because of my academic work. Maybe I'll try setting small goals on busy days, longer goals on others, and then stopping.

  10. Allison Brennan

    Like Rob said, I can't turn it off either. My kids are used to me just popping into the room and saying things like, "I need to dump a body, but the lake is frozen. Suggestions?"

    I really hope they don't send me their psychiatry bills.

  11. Rob Gregory Browne

    Allison, if the lake is frozen, you bring a pick, make a decent sized hole, then shove the body in. Nobody'll see that sucker for months.

    Oh, and don't forget to cover the hole with some branches and stuff so one of the local kids can step on it and fall in—which, of course, leads to a rescue, which leads to an early discovery of the body, and now the bad guy's plan is screwed…

    See what I mean about not being able to turn it off?

  12. Murderati fan

    There was a gal who used to work at home and at the end of the day she would walk through the house ringing a teacher's bell to indicate to herself that work time was over.
    So do not ask for whom the bell tolls ….

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