Crossing the Dumbarton
A brief story (by my standards):
When I lived in California during the dot-com bubble, I had a close friend from high school who I never, ever saw. Back in 1999, you couldn’t drive from Palo Alto to Berkeley at rush hour if your life depended on it. The Dumbarton Bridge might as well have been closed between 3pm and 7pm on any given weekday. Or, really until 9.
The main reason I rarely saw him, however, is that my job was intense. More specifically, the hours were crazy.
Fast-forward to late 2001. For a number of reasons, I was debating whether to quit this job. The money was decent but not spectacular, and I had a sensation that I was focused on the wrong things. It should not have been a difficult deliberation, but it was. While pondering it, the thought popped into my head that something was drastically wrong that I could never see my friend who lived only 20 miles away.
So, after a lot of thought, I laid myself off – one benefit of being partially in charge of a business unit. I did not regret if for a single second. Before long, I was a regular attendee at my long-lost weekly get-togethers in Rock Ridge and cemented a friendship that I almost lost. With the benefit of hindsight (i.e., getting older) It was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done, and it was empowering to be so true to myself.
A few things that happened recently reminded of this story and what a different time it was in my life.
The first is that I have a cousin in Toronto (technically my second cousin once-removed – she is a little older than I but somehow I am at the same generational level as her kids) who I would love to visit. I thought about this for about 3 seconds. Then I realized that it’s nearly impossible with everything else she and I both have going on being in our roles as parent, child, spouse, brother/sister, friend, neighbor, provider, cousin, volunteer, and of course, ourselves.
But the second and more pressing reminder is my expanding and out-of-hand work schedule, which this time I cannot fix by quitting.
For many years, I had both flexibility and a short commute. Nothing in life or career is free, and in this case, the tradeoff was a greater level of uncertainty and occasional (sometime frequent) travel. The good news is that travel is less an issue for me now. The uncertainty has been reduced nearly to zero, or at least I think it has.
However, the other two variables have shifted, and big. On a normal day, I am out the door just after 7, arrive home just before 7, and have very little slack during the workday. This is starting to crowd things out. Gone are the early evening times with my kids. They themselves have activities many nights so even if I could get home much earlier, they wouldn’t be there anyway. Fair enough. I still see my father once a week, but that moved to Sundays from Thursdays because getting out of the office reliably on Thursdays at 5 to see him regularly and for more than an hour or so became too difficult. This is easier for me. For the Sandwich Generation, no time shift is free, so there is a cost: Sunday evenings at home with Nova and the kids.
And I had a vision of hitting the gym occasionally during the day at work, which it turns out is a fantasy. I think I knew this intellectually. I have plenty of experience knowing things intellectually but not really believing it until I experience it. I believe that this state is called “adolescence” and apparently there is a part of me stuck in it. Denial about your body works great at 25, less great at 45. I went with the fantasy anyway. Then, once I stopped exercising regularly, my mid-40’s body responded, not surprisingly, by softening and creaking and leaking energy and self-confidence. My energy level dropped off.
Then I subsequently learned that coffee can solve almost all problems – but not this one. So I went back to morning workouts The other parts are back, except the result of trudging out the door four days per week at 5:45 is that I don’t get back just before my kids head out the door in the morning for school. So, now I don’t have morning time with the kids either.
Because my daily pace at work is fast, I arrive home a little bit wrecked. I don’t often self-medicate with a beer or two, which is code for “sometimes do”. My cellphone usually goes unanswered at dinner, and yet it’s so easy to push a couple of buttons “just in case”. After all, there is always something I could respond to right away.
This is all starting to come to a head now as more things fall through the cracks.
For Columbus Day weekend, we were supposed to go up to the New Hampshire mountains and hike a waterfall, a birthday present that Lily designed for Nova and my father offered to pay for. It would have been my responsibility to plan and book this. And I just didn’t get to it. I was distracted.
In the back of mind, I knew that I should have booked and organized it before the week preceding Columbus Day weekend. Intellectually I knew that if I put it off, it would cause a problem. But I let it get away from me anyway. Again, knowing something intellectually is not that interesting if you don’t act on it.
I had lunch today with a long-time colleague and friend from my days of a less structured work schedule. Presciently, he asked, “How’s this going for your wife?” And the answer is – it probably sucks.
When your colleague you haven’t seen in 6 months picks up on something in 10 seconds that you’ve been playing around with in your head for weeks, it is time to act.
So, I’m resolving to get work back under control. In trying to balance and optimize across multiple things, I can’t let any one piece get too far ahead of the rest. The essence of being Sandwich Generation, for me, and my “cousin”, and for you, is balancing and prioritizing across multiple contexts and in multiple permutations: parent, child, spouse, brother, friend, neighbor, provider, cousin, volunteer, and self. It is also a question of adjusting among these different competing contexts, and understanding when something has to be the first thing.
Sometimes, once in a rare while, something has to be the only thing. This is what happened my father got very sick last summer; everything else had to wait.
In this case, I have bumped ‘provider’ (and partially ‘self’ – it’s about that too) too often to be the first thing, or even the only thing. Now I know this intellectually. The trick now is to channel my 2001 self, rebalance somehow, and move being father, spouse and cousin back up the list where they belong. If I could do it because of a desire to cross the Dumbarton Bridge in 1999, I can do it now.