It All Started with Sunscreen

Gaby is my crazy Brazilian friend. (If you do not have one of these in your life, it is second only to having a gay best friend.) We met in Fiji and it is somewhat of a miracle that we are such good friends as our encounter started with her lecturing me about not wearing sunscreen. Because of my extremely pale complexion I am often asked if I am from Canada, Alaska, Seattle, or any other convenient place where there is little sunshine. Anytime we go somewhere that even has a hint of sunshine, people become extremely concerned about my super-whiteness and over the years countless well-meaning people have advised me about the importance of sunscreen. I know all you melanin-enhanced folks out there are just trying to help, but please trust me that I wear copious amounts of the stuff. How do you think I stay this pale? Truthfully, I only come in two skin tones – burnt and pale. I have suffered the consequence of going out without sunscreen enough times to now be deeply committed to my sunscreen regimen. I use obscene amounts of sunscreen, and can go through an entire can in a single poolside outing. Given my own obsessiveness in this matter, it gets to be tiresome when the umpteenth person in a row says something like, “Oh my God, I hope you are wearing sunscreen.” And adding a charming Brazilian accent does not actually make it any more charming.

So, poolside in Fiji, Gaby says to me in a charming Brazilian accent, “Oh my God, I hope you are wearing sunscreen.” I sigh and reply that indeed I am wearing sunscreen. Fast forward to the next day and I remain my pasty self and Gaby has suffered such severe sunburn that they have to call the resort medicine man in to treat her. She was not actually wearing sunscreen. I did not realize it then, but this was the start of a beautiful friendship. Aside from that encounter we did not interact much in Fiji, but our two traveling groups somehow merged into one and we left the trip exchanging everyone’s email addresses.

Gaby sent out a few messages and I believe even sent me a Christmas card that first year. She sent out a broadcast invite for people to come to her home in Carmel for a gourmet dinner she was preparing. I knew she was a chef, but little did she know that I needed little to no excuse to jump on a plane and fly to CA for a weekend full of fine dining. We replied with an enthusiastic yes to the invite and we were even welcomed to stay with her and her husband, Carlos, although somehow we did not have any more contact until we showed up at their doorstep the day of the dinner. I would come to learn that this is often how things work with Gaby. The details sort themselves out and it’s often best just to plunge ahead into whatever is in front of you.

From there, we became the kind of friends who spend long hours in deep and meaningful conversation when we are together, and often otherwise go months without talking. When we see each other, the conversation picks right back up where it left off, and here we are still talking and laughing together 10 years later.

We flew down for a visit this weekend with no agenda other than to see a little sunshine and enjoy their company. Most of the weekend was very relaxing with a bike ride along Monterey Bay, watching movies, and generally catching up. We did decide to go to a local restaurant, 1833, for drinks and appetizers.

On the way home, we drove past an Asian massage parlor that was advertised as open until 11pm. This was not in a shady section of town, in fact it was just a few blocks from where we stopped to get some frozen yogurt… Gaby thought this was fascinating and decided that we needed to determine whether this was one of those establishments that offers more ‘gentleman’s services’ than it does massage. So, we drive around the block and pulled up in front of the place in their black Mercedes. (If you are going to go to a massage parlor of dubious reputation, you might as well arrive in style.) Gaby orders Brian to go inside, check it out, and report back. He hesitates and decides he is not so sure of this mission, so Carlos agrees to go with him and off they go. A few minutes later they re-appear, hop back in the car and we make a speedy exit. “So..?” Gaby asks. Brian and Carlos confirm that indeed they could have gotten far more than the standard issue massage and in fact the lady behind the door (no reception desk in the waiting area, just a door with a little window that the ‘receptionist’ looks out through) told them to come back in an hour, well after closing, and they would be ‘taken care of.’ Gaby wants to know how much it costs for these extra services, but in their haste the boys forgot to ask. Gaby is indignant that they went all they way into this place and failed to find out the most important piece of information that people were sure to ask when she shared this news – the price.

I would love to say this is an unusual event for a trip to see Gaby, but really, it is pretty much par for the course. Things go along quietly and suddenly at 11pm on a Saturday night, it is imperative that we learn whether and how much the nefarious local massage parlor charges. (Once, I made the mistake of telling Gaby that it’s bad luck to give a knife as a gift without getting a penny in exchange so we had to venture out to a friend’s house at midnight to get said penny before they were on a flight early the next day.)

Sunscreen comments aside, how can you not love a person who drags you to massage parlors in the middle of the night just to find out if they are actually the other kind of parlor?  The answer is you can’t, and really, why would you want to..?

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No vacation for you…

Because I work in Social Media and because I am kind of a dork for articles about leadership-type stuff, I follow the Harvard Business Review blog and found this little gem on how Work and Vacation Should Go Together.The author, Ron Ashkenas, suggests perhaps we should accept the fact that folks spend time working when they are theoretically off the clock or even when they are on vacation:

Maybe we need to accept the fact that the sharp demarcation between work and home is a thing of the past, and that the new normal is a life that integrates home and work more seamlessly.

I will confess I tend to check my work emails in the evening and it’s not unusual that I’ll wrap up a project after I get home, but I have to draw the line when it comes to my vacations. I am a vacation junky. I use my vacation time as fast as I can earn it. I love to travel and I’m as likely to take a Friday off to take a quick weekend trip when the airfares are good as I am to take a week off and run to Hawaii for the same reason. I cherish that time away and part of what makes it special is that it is MY time. I work hard and long the rest of the days, so why would I want to pollute my chance to take a break with a conference call?

Ashkenas goes on to say

…we can stop feeling guilty about scheduling calls during our vacations or checking our emails at night

How about not feeling guilty and also not scheduling calls during vacations?  I believe this kind of thinking sets a dangerous precedent that we are so important that work can’t survive without us. That simply is not true. If you have someone to back you up, good documentation, and a well-oiled team that you trust; they actually hum along just fine without you – they might even get a few extra things done when you’re gone. Or maybe they have to scratch their heads and puzzle a little over how to solve a problem in your absence. But is that such a horrible thing – for your team to have to stretch and challenge themselves?

Some people fear the mountain of work that will await them when they get back if they don’t check in while they are gone. I will tell you a little secret from someone who does not check even one email when I am on vacation. Emails do pile up, but with an out of office reply that informs people you are out, not checking email, and where they can get help, there is a point of diminishing returns. Somewhere in the middle of being gone, people stop emailing you because they already know you aren’t there and/or how to get the answers they need. Mostly what I am doing when I get back and am facing the mountain is deleting or filing emails that have already been dealt with – maybe that does take an investment of time when I first return to the office, but it’s a good way to catch up on what I missed and the small amount of time it takes to do the email clean-up far outweighs the cost of trying to field all those emails while you are out of the office.

Also, for me as a leader and a manager within my company, I believe my actions send as loud or louder a message than anything I say. If I spend all my time on vacation checking in, checking email, attempting to “integrate” my work and my vacation, then I am sending a message loud and clear to my people that they aren’t allowed to take real vacations either. In Go Ahead, Take that Break, author  Whitney Johnson says it well when she notes:

We may think we’re being responsive, even impressive, when we send work-related e-mails at midnight, on the weekend, or vacation, but those who work for us will see us as establishing a norm. If you will take some real down-time without the constant tug of technology or a to-do list absorbing your thoughts, you will give your employees permission to do the same.

There seems to be some sentiment in American work culture these days that says if we stop for even a moment to take a break that we will lose all our momentum and spend all our time scrambling to catch back up to ourselves. I think that is frankly poppycock and comes from some place of fear, not reason. It’s been shown time and time again that periods of rest actually make us more productive. Instead of integration of our work and our rest, I think we need to reclaim our ability to stop and smell the flowers once in awhile. And in the camp of an oldy, but a goody,  No one ever said on their deathbed,”I wish I had spent more time in the office.”