Mid-August. Summer holidays. Long days. Sunshine. Warm weather.
At least that is the theory!
Instead, I slouched contentedly on a picnic chair as dusk approached, rugged up in jeans and a hoodie, staring out over the forest treetops at the rapidly approaching dark storm clouds.
A motley collection of fat ducks, fatter pigeons, and squabbling squirrels battled over breadcrumbs at my feet.
On the edge of the treeline, a couple of female deer tentatively munched on apples I had rolled their way a few minutes earlier. Much like remote working laptop jockeys, whether they were too smart or too timid to fully emerge, I had not yet decided.
It was a beautiful spot. Calm and relaxing, providing you weren’t a hungry duck.
Curious about the time, I automatically patted my pocket in search of my phone.
Instead of the momentary panic I have been conditioned to feel whenever my phone was not within arms reach, I grinned.
One of the best parts about being on holiday is escaping the everyday ruts and routines we construct around ourselves. Prisons of our own making. Habits, rarely sought out, which conspire to occupy so many of our waking hours. Doing things other than what we would consciously choose to do.
I hadn’t been carrying my phone during this holiday. It lay unloved and ignored, switched off somewhere in the bottom of my bag. As a result, I had little idea what was happening out in the world. Markets up? Markets down? COVID lurching in yet another seemingly random direction? I neither knew nor cared.
“Out in the world” was how this holiday felt. It was the first time I had been away in about a year. Not out of fear, or particular concern for my family’s health. Simply a lack of opportunity and will. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to create that feeling. Just a change of scenery and a break from the everyday.
I would be lying if I pretended I hadn’t checked my phone at all during the vacation. Much as I may have liked to, some things can’t be ignored for days on end.
Each time I had checked in with the world, I had instantly regretted it.
One of my long time property managers had suddenly cashed out without warning, selling his book to a competitor. A career of always being too busy finally catching up with him, when a late-stage terminal diagnosis ended his retirement plans before they had even begun. Unfortunately, I had previously fired the competitor, for invoicing phantom maintenance jobs supposedly performed by his “trusted” preferred supplier. Such is the lot of a long-distance landlord.
Another day, the town where my elderly mother lives alone had gone into COVID lockdown for the first time in over a year. After two days she was angry. Bored. Restless. Scared. Wanting to vent. Such is the lot of a long-distance son.
Sad and difficult both. Neither about me at all. And yet, each managed to seize my attention and reprioritise my day. Temporarily at least. The endless ebbs and flows of external influence, demonstrating once more that control is mostly an illusion. A comforting fairy tale we tell ourselves as we drift along in a current.
I must admit to genuine alarm at just how often I had similarly patted my pockets in search of my phone during the first couple of days on holiday. Dozens. Possibly hundreds. Not because of imagined phantom vibrations, the kind that announces some very busy distraction. No, it was nothing more than conditioned habit.
A bad one.
This had given me pause. Causing me to consciously consider what I get out of using those distracting apps?
Happiness or contentment? Certainly not.
Feeling connected or loved or stimulated? Bwahaha…. no.
Convenience? Perhaps, though this can be a trap. Gaining very little while giving up a lot.
Perhaps it was my limited imagination, but I failed to come up with a single good reason to use them at all.
The next morning, during the brief daily moment I allowed the world to intrude on my holiday, I deleted the apps that were the worst of the time sucks and distraction agents from my phone. LinkedIn. Slack. Twitter too.
If I really wanted to use them, I could manually log in via a web browser. Introducing an element of friction, to ensure I really wanted it. Banishing the idle scrolling during those in-between moments. Past experience when exiting Facebook suggests this would happen infrequently.
The holiday provided a similar circuit breaker that shone a spotlight on other habits, both good and bad.
Snacking after dinner had proved to be difficult when there are no snacks in the cabin to be found. Yet despite wandering aimlessly past the kitchen several times each evening, I hadn’t missed the empty calories.
Exercising proved to be as simple as lacing up some shoes and going for a run. Not the excuse riddled extravaganza I had managed to turn it into at home. Getting changed into training gear. Running or going to the gym, but only if it wasn’t raining. Or cold. Or icy. Or the footpaths covered in slippery autumn leaves. Then showering and getting changed again. A humble twenty-minute jog mentally inflating into a production lasting an hour or more. Time I seldom felt I could spare or justify. Probably because I wasted so much of it on noise and distractions!
Reading a book. It had been more than six months since I last escaped into the world of fiction. My commute used to be where I did most of my reading, devouring stories at a rapid pace as an escape from the daily grind. A once favourite pastime that had gotten crowded out by distractions.
An ominous peel of thunder rolled in from the horizon. Heavy raindrops spilling from the bloated grey clouds. First one. Then a handful. The menagerie at my feet scarpered, breadcrumbs abandoned. Figuring the locals might know something I didn’t, I escaped back inside as the skies opened.
Later that evening, I was playing Monopoly with my kids. An often frustrating game, that teaches the players more about futility, greed, luck, and behavioural psychology than money management. Board games are a rare event in my house, something that only occurs during the slower pace of holiday life.
As we played, we talked about their plans for the future. Again a rare event. Despite having spent more time than ever before together over the last 18 months, most conversations are about the trivia of the everyday.
My elder son revealed he was planning to move to Canada or New Zealand. Neither were places he had previously visited. He had been researching English speaking countries, seeking somewhere offering the promise of a high quality of life and reasonable career prospects.
His long-held previous plan of attending an Australian university had evolved. The spectre of long hot summers full of 40+ degree days and endless bushfires motivating him to look further afield. Family ties to “the old country” had weakened during COVID, as closed borders and mandatory hotel quarantines meant our once annual pilgrimages home were replaced by fleeting Facetime calls that none of the cousins really wanted to participate in. The younger ones no longer remember the last time we visited.
Unfortunately, his growing awareness of and interest in current affairs had coincided with a period during which Brexit and 130,000+ COVID deaths had put the worst aspects of British culture proudly on display. A scaled-up version of the boorish football fan behaviours which regularly see bouncers, security guards, and riot police deployed throughout our neighbourhood every time there are home games.
He isn’t wrong in what he has observed about Britain, yet his certainty of youth failed to see many of the redeeming qualities. Nor recognise that people are people wherever they happen to live, he had just never experienced a drunken All Blacks supporter or Canucks fan in the flesh!
My younger son declared he couldn’t wait until he started high school. At which point he would get his own bus pass, house key, and phone. Then he could come and go as he pleased. Tired of being bossed around by everyone, he is in a great hurry to grow up and be his own man.
He planned to jump on the first plane to Australia the day he comes of age. Living in my elderly mother’s house with its ample space, huge yard, and view of a lake. A far cry from the mid-terrace shoebox, located more often than not under the airport flight path, that he resides in today.
It was unclear where his grandmother was supposed to live once he arrived. Not in her house anyway! She would be allowed to come and visit. As was I.
At that point, they both looked expectantly at me. I replied that it sounded like in the far distant future I would need to adopt a follow the sun lifestyle, visiting each of them during their local summers.
They both laughed, then the younger one observed with his patented sledgehammer bluntness that it wasn’t so far away. He would be at high school in three years, his brother gone to university in four.
It was my turn to laugh. I joked that I would worry about it when the time came. There wasn’t any point thinking about living locations before then. The boys exchanged uncomfortable glances, and changed the subject.
Later that evening we headed off to bed. A string of hotels down the expensive side of the Monopoly board having determined the outcome of the game, as they so often do. My elder son paused, squared his shoulders, and looked me in the eye. “Think about it now. You don’t have that long”. Then he gave me a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, as I had done to him numerous times over the years in the face of adversity or disappointment.
The boy was growing up. Almost as tall as me. Almost as fast. Almost as strong. Now trying to take care of his old man. Something I appreciated and found unnerving in equal measure.
That night I lay awake in the uncomfortable bed, staring at the unfamilar ceiling. One of the worst things about being on holidays is escaping the ruts and routines we construct around ourselves. Defences against uncertainties. Keeping us busy, so that we have neither the time nor the energy to just think.
Alone with our thoughts.
Free from distractions.
With nowhere to hide.
Now, where did I leave my phone?