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The Non-Expert

William Betts, Miami Beach, 2:18pm, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Richard Levy Gallery.


Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week, tips for a productive working vacation with your extended family.

Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.

Question: I’m going away next week with my in-laws. I usually have a nice time with them, but I’d like to use this vacation to get some work done. I suspect that will be hard. Any advice? —John

Answer: Ambitious worker! I’ve never returned from vacation having accomplished all I set out to do. There should be a word for the sadness that accompanies re-shelving the books you hoped to read, putting away the notebooks you meant to fill, staring again at the emails you planned to answer. The Germans would have a word for it if they understood the phenomenon, but I’m sure their vacations are models of efficiency. In fact, they have a word for the particular satisfaction of writing an entire novel in a single vacation: Bildungsproductivevacationroman.

The amount of work you’ll get done is dependent on a number of factors. Do you have any say in the vacation destination (good), or will you be visiting an ancestral home (usually bad)?

You don’t say what work you want to do. Perhaps you’re shackled to a corporate deal, or are scrambling for tenure? Or maybe you’re a banker working on a screenplay, or a massage therapist studying Arabic? Whatever! The point is, you are right to suspect getting some vacation work done will be hard. In America, the unproductive vacation is very common. It happens to all of us—that is, to the five percent of Americans who actually have and take vacation time. And most of that set have some kind of work they hope to do while they’re away. Problems arise when family members, jealous of your time for a variety of reasons, fail to understand your ambitions.

The first thing to know is this: The amount of work you’ll get done is dependent on a number of factors. Do you have any say in the vacation destination (good), or will you be visiting an ancestral home (usually bad)? Is a family wedding involved? Will you be in a remote place, or near a town with at least two of the following: café, post office, library or urgent care clinic? Do you have access to either a car or a card table? Do you have a baby or small child? More than one? (Yeah, well, good luck!) Does your spouse also harbor unrealistic vacation work goals?

But the most important question by far is this: What is the nature of your job compared to the jobs of your co-vacationing family members?

So find your situation in the chart below for my best advice to suit your scenario, then plan ahead for your next holiday with family. Good luck!

Office Worker Unemployed/
YOU Self-Employed/
1 2 3
Office Worker 4 5 6
7 8 9


1. If you and your vacationing host are both academics, much depends on tenure.

If you don’t have tenure but your host does, there will be sympathy for your situation but also many stories about how different things were 30 years ago. Martinis will help, but you’ll also want to find an alternative workspace. Locate the nearest library and announce your intention to work there in the mornings. The family will assume this means you’ll rejoin them in time for lunch, and given their inability to wake up before 11 a.m., this shouldn’t be a problem.

Should you have an early-rising family, consider the unconventional escape: the “hike” with a mysteriously heavy backpack, or the kayak packed with a “cooler.” Disguising work materials is essential. If you have a spouse who also wants to work, you two can leave for the “hike” together. If this is too difficult (i.e. small children need looking after), then you will have to agree on shifts. Tip: Claim the morning shift; vacation cocktail hour tends to start early.

In the evening, everyone can regroup over Downton Abbey.

2. You are a self-employed/academic type, but your host has an office job.

Again, much depends on whether you are pre- or post-publication, or pre- or post-tenure. (Remember, as an office worker, your host will not understand the concept of tenure. “They can’t fire you, but you can leave?” will be his constant, baffled refrain.) Don’t tell anyone you need to work because they won’t believe you. Set up a card table in an upstairs closet and work around the family’s outings. If you don’t have tenure, you don’t have the authority to remove yourself from an outing to the aquarium.

If you are published and/or have tenure, the card table may be set up in a more public part of the house. But remember, your host has the “real” job. In his mind, you are some kind of teacher with a long summer holiday. Set up the table in the garage. You will feel like a low-level colonial administrator distributing malaria pills, but you’ll get some work done.

3. As an academic or self-employed person, your life can sometimes look eerily similar to that of your retired or unemployed hosts.

Writers: If you are not affiliated with an academic institution, avoid saying you are working on a novel. “Freelancing” is way better than any kind of “fiction writing”! The etymological meaning of freelancer as “mercenary warrior” is persuasive, and not because of the weaponry. It’s the prospect of actual money being earned that may inspire them to release you from attending Aunt Edna’s 75th birthday party. Foster confusion by saying you are “going to work in a library.” Your family will assume you got a job at the library and will congratulate you on joining the real world. When they turn away, resist the urge to spit in their beers. Academics: You will have to explain, over countless summer dinners, that just because you are not teaching doesn’t mean you have no work to do.

4. You are an office worker, but your host is a self-employed/academic type.

Tricky. Academics and the self-employed tend to be smug about their freedom, so to avoid condescension you’ll also need to work away from the house or vacation rental. Many libraries have small private rooms that can be reserved on an hourly basis. However, a warning: If you exercise this option, you may be taking space away from the local math tutor, forcing her to hold her tutorials at a table in the main reading room. The rest of the library will not enjoy the impromptu refresher course on finding the lowest common denominator. Reserve a second day at your own risk!

5. You and your host are both office workers.

Yikes! A competitive dynamic. Chances are your host will have vacation work he wants to do, too, so you’ll want to claim the best available work space as quickly as possible. As the junior worker, however, you can’t expect the best spot. If there is a proper desk, the host will claim it. You’ll have to make due with an upstairs dresser or vanity doubling as a desk for the duration of your visit. If these surfaces have already been claimed by other familial and rival workers, you may have to make due with a corner of the kitchen or the ping-pong table on the porch. You’ll be asked to clear your things away for every game and every meal. You could consider a card table in an upstairs closet, but that may already be the haunt of the family academic (see #2 above). You can at least stake out a strong position in the yard for your phone calls. And certainly you have the right to commandeer the corkscrew.

In the evening, everyone can unwind over an episode of The Family Man.

6. If you have an office job, a happily retired host will likely leave you alone.

The unemployed host, or the unhappy retired person, will be jealous of your work, however, and attempt to thwart you with unusually virulent tactics. Watch for fishing trips planned at ungodly hours, late-night questions about social media, strong cocktails and marathons of “The Wire.” If you want internet access, you may be out of luck. Your retired host will decide leaving the modem on is a fire hazard. Before you both come to blows, find a café with wi-fi.

7. If you are unemployed and your host is a self-employed/academic, you can expect a high degree of sympathy.

You’ll probably be allowed to work anywhere, on the couch, in front of the TV, in a box, with a fox. If there are any roving toddlers around, however, be careful! They can be surprisingly quick to approach and ask too loudly: “Why you on the Twitter again?” Don’t plan on working in bed or on the hammock. That would be pushing it.

8. You are unemployed, but your host has an office job.

Chances are he’ll be too busy on his new iPad to notice your plight. On the plus side, if you play the sympathy card right, you might just find yourself the recipient of a used laptop. If you have a spouse with vacation goals, offer to pick up the slack. This can include meal planning, watching the children, and defending her to the in-laws when she leaves to work at the library. Any number of things, for Christ’s sake. Just stop thinking about yourself all the time, already.

9. If you are unemployed and your host is retired or unemployed, refrain from drinking at breakfast.

The things we do to make memories with our families are important work, after all. Bake cookies! Go to the beach! Eat more ice cream. Visit small museums and barely historic houses. It all adds up to a happy, well-balanced life eventually. (Alternatively, claim a catastrophic nerve impingement in your back—fairly easy to fake—and flee.)

Happy working!

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