Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Closer to Free

I was driving to work the other day, and the BoDeans "Closer to Free" came on the radio.



Three thoughts came into my head:

1. Although I am much less well informed since I've switched to listening to the music station on my commute, I am also no longer arriving at work already despondent about my fellow humans and their ability to get along. And sometimes a song I really like comes on and I actually arrive at work in a better mood than I was in when I left home. So overall, I think the decision to postpone my edification about the world's events to a lunchtime online news break has been a good one.

2. The technological advances just since my grad school days (when this song came out) are astounding. I remember the first time I heard this song. I was out to dinner with my then boyfriend. We were heading back to the car and this song came on the radio station that the shopping center was playing. It struck me immediately, and I made my boyfriend stop and listen to the entire thing. But they segued directly to another song without naming the song or the artist. So I cajoled my boyfriend into calling the station to find out what it was. I hate making phone calls, but I really wanted to know what the song was. Nowadays, there's an app for that. It seems like a trivial thing, but it is actually really cool and amazing that you can hold your phone up to capture the ambient music and it can tell you what the song is. Of course, I don't have a smart phone, so I'd still have to enlist help... but you get the idea.

3. OMG, the BoDeans are right. I just want to be closer to free.

OK, let me explain that last one. The memory that popped into my head to go with that line was from the first stop on our big trip, which was in French Polynesia. We had booked into a little fare in Moorea, right on the beach. We were finding French Polynesia less idyllic than we'd anticipated- basically our experiences in the Cook Islands had set the bar a bit too high. Moorea was beautiful, but we were there in December, whereas we'd always gone to the Cooks on the shoulder seasons, so it wasn't so hot and humid. Neither of us is particularly fluent in French. We prefer beer to wine, and it being French Polynesia, wine was far more prevalent (and cheaper). We'd had some hiccups getting to our lodgings, and once there discovered that we weren't close to much. Except the beach.

The view from our patio
Luckily, it was a lovely beach, next to the sort of beautiful shallow lagoon that I associate with Polynesian islands. So we weren't really complaining, but we were still definitely adjusting to the realities of the sort of travel we had undertaken- i.e., on a tighter budget than our usual shorter trips, in which we for once might prioritize saving money over saving time. 

On our first full afternoon, we went for a swim in what was essentially our private patch of lagoon. According to the diary I kept at the time, the snorkeling was underwhelming. I don't actually remember that, but I have a very clear memory of floating in the warm water next to Hubby and thinking "we have four more months of this" and getting an incredible, almost transcendent feeling of freedom. (I did not, incidentally, record that thought in my diary, which just shows how sometimes the most memorable part of traveling is not what you think is important at the time.)

In actuality, we did not spend the next four months swimming carefree in various bodies of water. That wasn't really what I was thinking about, anyway. We had four months to do with what we pleased, and that level of freedom was intoxicating at that moment.

I don't remember any other moments like that from that trip. But I can remember one other time in my adult life in which I've felt that same transcendent freedom. It was when I left the East coast town that was home to my first post-PhD job to come back to San Diego. I can't remember exactly how much time I had between jobs- maybe 4 weeks? My sister drove across country with me, and I remember how wonderfully free I felt as we drove out of town in my sporty (but practical!) little car, with the sun roof open and U2's Joshua Tree blaring from the stereo.

One of the things I love about travel, even now with kids in tow, is the way it lets me taste a bit of that freedom. Heading out for a one or two week vacation isn't as liberating as taking a four month leave of absence or driving across country in between jobs, but it still gives me the thrill of stepping outside of our usual routine, and it still offers up the possibility of doing what we want to do and not what we have to do for awhile.

This raises the obvious question of why I don't try to make my entire life more free. In one sense, I do- as I tried to explain in my much misunderstood post about buying happiness, one of the most satisfying things I do with my money is buy freedom, in that having a hefty buffer in the bank makes me feel less tethered to my job.

But I'd be lying if I said that I feel anything close to transcendent freedom on a day to day basis. I am not sure if that is even possible- perhaps having a routine to disrupt is part of the basis for the feeling. Any fabulously wealthy (or fabulously frugal) people who do not have to work want to weigh in on that?

Regardless, I'd still like to try to feel a little closer to free every day, and I've been thinking about that a lot as I think about my ideal life configuration. Obviously, choosing to have kids has restricted my freedom somewhat, as has buying a house. But if I think about what makes me feel the most trapped these days, it is not anything to do with the kids- paradoxically, they often trigger a feeling of freedom, because their fresh perspective jolts me into seeing the everyday wonderfulness of our lives. Nor is it the fact that I need to work to help support my family. I actually like working and can't imagine living a life in which I wasn't trying to create something most days. The choice of the word "create" may surprise you, but I consider informatics (and science, for that matter) to be intensely creative endeavors. I am trying to create systems that will help other scientists create knowledge.

No, what makes me feel trapped is my interactions with other people- and not all other people, just some of them. The ones who don't play well with others, to be precise. If I reduce it to essentials, I am tired of dealing with other people's immense egos, and working around other people's inflexiblities.

Of course, unless I decide to switch to a career as a hermit philosopher, I'm unlikely to get away from these problems. But when I think back on the times that I've been happiest at work, one of two scenarios was in play: either I was working with a really tight team, who all pulled together for a common goal and among whom mutual respect was a given, or I was working as a contractor. Apparently, if I am paid by the hour I have much more patience for long meetings to negotiate an agreement that any sane person would have given me in 20 seconds, even when my negotiation partner is treating me with an obvious lack of respect. When I put it like that, I'm not sure why that realization surprised me, but it did.

The other thing that makes me feel trapped is the expectations of the modern work place in terms of how I work: when, where, in what environment. I wish I could just arrange my work life in the way that I find most productive and enjoyable, but I have to make compromises with what my colleagues need from me and what work culture expects.

I'm not sure what these realizations will mean in terms of my emerging life plan. But each little realization about what makes me happy and what I want moves me a step or two closer to figuring out how my puzzle pieces best go together, and that in itself makes me happy.

And in the meantime, I think I'll keep the car radio tuned to the music station.

18 comments:

  1. Neat post! Freedom and good management are things I definitely enjoy with my current employment and makes it paradoxically difficult for me to think about leaving in order to boost my salary.

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    1. I totally get that. I think of it as another way of using money to buy happiness- you're basically trading money (or the chance for more of it) for job satisfaction. I think I'd make that trade, too- within reason!

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  2. I'm pretty familiar with that feeling. I get it riding my bike to work in the morning - if it happens to be one of those cool, sunny mornings. I got a bit of it last night when we went down to the lake and test-paddled some kayaks. I've been planning a canoe trip for September, and I think that is what I'm most looking forward to - mid-way across the lake, trees all around, nothing to do, exactly that feeling you're describing.

    So...now that I've put it all in words I guess what I need in my life are those moments of being in motion, and in control. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we can get the new kayak in time for this weekend, because the little one appears to be perfectly content to sit in the front of a kayak for hours (she sits between my feet and leans back against my knees...surprisingly comfortable for both of us).

    Trapped on the other hand, is when there is no feeling of forward motion. Stuck on a problem I can't solve, herding a small child towards bed (that one actually involves moving backwards too much of the time).

    So, I've never ever tried to articulate any of this before, and I suspect I've just learned rather a lot about myself thanks to this post. Thanks Cloud!

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    1. Thanks for telling me. What a nice comment! I'm looking forward to kayaking with my kids once Petunia is a little older, too.

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    2. I guess what I need in my life are those moments of being in motion, and in control.

      One of my favorite activities is driving (when I am alone). I love love love the open road.
      Maybe I should consider a career change, become a truck driver.

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    3. Even without a career change, taking a road trip once a year or so helps this immensely. I've taken more than a few solo road trips (or at least solo + dog) and will go on another one with BabyT in a couple of weeks. I love driving (as long as I have good music.)

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  3. mom2boy3:48 AM

    Now that Tate and I have a significant drive to and from school, we listen to a lot more music. I think it improves both our moods.

    We went canoeing last weekend and saw manatees including a mom and baby. Tate even got to touch the mom. It was just a 45 minute drive but it felt like we were on vacation. It's hard to be anything but carefree in that moment.

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    1. Oh man. I totally have to come see the manatees sometime!

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    2. That is super amazing! ;)

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  4. Now, of course, I have Indigo Girls stuck in my head on infinite loop. Similar title, different message.

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    1. Hee hee! Sorry. I could fix that, but I'm afraid it is a case of the cure being worse than the initial problem....

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  5. Love this post. Also feel the same way you do with kids. They really shake you out of your routine! I'm more of a homebody but wanting them to experience more things have forced my husband and I out of the house on occasional weeknights. We also try to do more new things on weekdays.

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    1. Thanks! I keep trying to do more "home town touristing" but somehow, that doesn't really get that same feeling of freedom, even though I live in a great tourist town. Breaking out of the routine is harder than it sounds, I guess!

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  6. I, too, had to give up talk radio in the car for the reasons you describe. I check out books on CD from the library ~ most times non-fiction, sometimes a good novel. It's self-protection AND multi-tasking.

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    1. I know a lot of people who do books on CD. I can't really get into it, though. I don't know why. So for me, it is music. If the radio isn't playing anything good, there is usually at least one good CD in the car.

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  7. 1. I have that song in my head, and wasn't it the title song to Party of Five?? Aaghh.

    2. There is nothing better than the freedom of being jobless, but knowing you have a job lined up for "later". The few times I've changed companies, I try to get as much leave as possible in between.

    3. I think it's definitely worth figuring out what makes you feel more "free". Even having one afternoon where I've dropped off BabyT at my parents' place, and having 3 or 4 hours to myself ahead of me feels amazing. So now my "freedom" just comes in smaller doses :D

    I do also find that to feel like a real vacation from work, it needs to be at least a whole week off. I do take days off here and there for errands and stuff but it doesn't really restore my soul...

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    1. Yes, the "job free, but only temporarily" thing is awesome. I suspect that being truly financially independent would have the same effect. I'd love to find out!

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  8. Well, I agree with your post all in general how driving + good music makes u so much clean in thoghts some times.
    Well I will truly never want to quit my work only if they will allow me maintain my work life balance, plus if they don't make me put up with uncompatible people.
    Strict deadlines or Individual Contributor roles work best for me too. I like interaction alot but few bitter experiences have made me very very cautious.

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