How I Spent My Summer Vacation

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Note: A version of the following post was previously published in my weekly newsletter. Click here to subscribe.

In early 2002 I quit my job at Amazon.com. I was answering customer service emails in a small Tacoma office that used to be a bank. When they announced that they were closing the office and letting the offices in India take over, they were also nice enough to offer us work in the Seattle office answering phones. Instead I quit on the last day of the Tacoma office operating and cashed in my stock options the next day. I used that money to sustain my family and me for the next two years. A few months later I ran into a former coworker. He looked at me like a guy who cheated the system. Why wasn’t I working? What was I doing as a fully able bodied adult not spending my days working a job?

The answer was simple. I was spending time with my five-year-old son and my seven and eight-year-old stepdaughters. I was studying writers and improving my writing skills. I was giving myself a mini-retirement in my 20s.  And many of my peers resented me for it.

In 2015 I got laid off after working an IT job for two years. Before that I was working as a marketing and technical writer for five years. Before that I worked in logistics at a paving company for two years.  Before that I had a string of temp jobs as I got back into the workforce after two years of mini-retirement. (I once did the math to see what those stock options would have been worth if I hadn’t sold them back then. It was just over $400,000. It seems like a massive mistake, but I wouldn’t trade that amount of money for those two years with my kids.)

After getting laid off from the IT job, I went on unemployment and tried without any luck to find something new. It didn’t help that I was one of 21 people laid off, all of us with similar skillsets. As my search for work approached the six month mark, I was notified that my unemployment would be cut. I did some research and found that I could extend it another six months by going to college.

I had attended some classes at Tacoma Community College twenty years earlier, but never got a degree. Now I was back as a 40-year-old student. I chose to get into Human Services with the intention of being a clinical therapist. (I was looking for a profession where I could help people and not break my back or knees when I got older.)

During this time I kept expenses low and used financial aid and loans for the most part to make ends meet. I also received help from friends and family and started driving for Uber. In my second year at TCC I started an internship as an Anger Management Counselor which soon turned into a paid internship. I was employed again and not just as an Uber driver. Unfortunately, budget cuts resulted in my not being paid for the final months of the internship and Uber’s car lease program died, resulting in my car being repossessed. So I took Summer classes just to get the financial aid money.

I excelled in college. More than that, I really enjoyed studying and learning. After two years at TCC, I applied for the Evergreen State College Tacoma program. My first year there was incredibly rewarding and challenging. Most weeks I was reading over a hundred pages a day.  Evergreen is famous for not giving out grades, but what you get instead are evaluations of how and what you did in class. These could be far more damning if one didn’t apply themselves.

After my first year at Evergreen Tacoma I was in love with the program and more excited than ever to get back to it. I considered taking Summer classes, but my girlfriend pointed out that I was mentally and physically exhausted and that maybe I needed a break.

As adults, taking a break is frowned upon. Anything more than a two-week vacation and you’re some sort of lazy bastard who isn’t willing to put in the work to help themselves. One of the first questions people ask when meeting each other is ‘What do you do?’ This nearly always translates into ‘What is your job?’ and saying you don’t have one is met with derision or suspicion. It’s irresponsible to not be working when you’re able to. What gives you the right to sit around and do as you like without punching a clock or waking up at a particular time if you’re not rich, right?

It’s this sort of mentality more than any financial barrier that keeps grown adults from allowing them to take care of themselves by just taking an extended break. One of the first things I learned in the Human Services department is that job number one is not ‘do no harm’ or ‘meet people where they are at’. Self-care is job number one. The reason people burn out, the reason people freak out, the reason people shoot up their place of employment is because they do not know and do not use good self-care techniques.

I once went to an old friend’s funeral. He had been a custodian at the local high school for over 40 years. They placed his nameplate from his desk that had his name and the words ‘Chief Custodian’ on top of his coffin. One of the guys who spoke at the funeral tried to make some sort of analogy about him not just being Chief Custodian of the school, but Chief Custodian of life. I couldn’t help but think at the time that he was more than his job or at the very least he should have been.

Back when I worked at Amazon.com, I found a sign someone had taped to the bottom of my keyboard. A message from a former coworker. It said, “If someone made you an offer of sacrificing 50 of the 52 weeks in a year to work at least 40 hours a week for $30,000 a year, would you take that deal?” It was, of course, a rhetorical question. If I was reading that sign, I had already accepted that deal.

Since then I have been someone who sometimes takes time off from that deal. It’s not always easy. It’s rarely accepted by my peers, but it is always worth the trouble.

As the Summer began my landlord decided to move his daughter into my house leaving me with no place to live and no income. Thankfully, a couple of old friends have let me stay in a room in their basement (for a modest monthly payment). I’m more grateful than I can say for their generosity as without it this Summer would have been impossible. The house is across the Narrows Bridge and far away from everything else in my life. I’ve referred to the place as Outpost Zero.

I did a couple of low paying freelance writing gigs over the Summer and worked on my novel. I drank with friends. I read and wrote a lot. I spent some time wandering around Pt. Defiance with my now nearly 21-year-old son. I got to spend a lot of time with my girlfriend. I caught up on movies, television shows, books, and comic books that I haven’t had time to get to during the school year. I meditated and took some time for myself. I lost over 20 pounds. And I launched a campaign to pre-order my first novel. It’s been a very eventful, but mostly relaxing Summer vacation.

Another aspect that is just as forbidden as taking extended time away from work is asking for and/or receiving help. To some, one should always earn whatever they have and should not have whatever they have not earned. On the surface this seems like a practical way to look at the world, but upon closer inspection such thinking justifies not helping those who need it and more importantly, functionally destroys the very concept of true community. My breaks from work and my attending college would be impossible without the help of countless friends and family. I could not have taken the Summer off without my friends letting me live in their basement. Friends and family have bought me drinks and meals. Directly before I started at TCC, I had a financial hardship and crowdfunded over $1,000 from friends and strangers to make ends meet.

For some accepting this sort of help is considered wrong or having failed on a societal level that is unacceptable. But I’ve also helped others when I’ve been able to. One of my friends who let me stay at Outpost Zero needed a place to stay shortly after Hurricane Katrina. He found a home in my apartment. A few years ago a family I know was homeless. I let them stay at my house for a while. And everyone I know is aware that I’m always good for a ride to the airport. Helping when one can and accepting help when it is offered is part of being a functioning community and nothing to be ashamed of. It is actually one of the most human things that we do.

I can’t help but be excited for the upcoming school year. One of my classes is on the midterm elections. That’s going to be all sorts of fun. But I also can’t help but think of all my friends and acquaintances who do not understand the life I lead or how I lead it. To them, I am not behaving like a productive member of society because I’m not spending my time helping someone else achieve their dream of having a profitable company. I’d love to explain to them that they would be better off if they took breaks. I’d love to tell them how life is so much more than how much money you make or the social value of having a day job. Maybe some of them will read this and think about taking some time for themselves.

As I end this latest break, I’m feeling more rested and able to tackle my last year at Evergreen. This year is going to be especially challenging because once again I’m employed. I’ll be working in the writing center at Evergreen Tacoma as a writing tutor. In a way it’s a perfect job in that it will fit around my college schedule and involves skills I not only have but enjoy using. In the Spring there’s a community fair project that’s going to take a lot of work. You’ll hear more about that from me later.

Some people thought I was crazy when I quit Amazon. Some people think I’m crazy for being a 43-year-old man able-bodied man who takes breaks from working. I think they’re crazy for never questioning the idea of never taking a mini-retirement. I know people who’ve practically missed their kid’s entire childhood because they were busy working. I understand that the work affords a certain level of lifestyle for the children, but I can’t imagine a retirement in the future that’s worth that sacrifice of time away from your kids. Luckily I never have to. It’s unfortunate so many others cannot say the same.

– Jack Cameron

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