Vacationing on the grid

It’s 5 am in Kauai. I’m sitting on the lanai of our condo, writing this in the glow from my laptop. I’ll continue to work on various things until about 8 am, when I’ll try to swim some lengths in the pool and then see what else my wife and daughters have planned for the day. Every so often I’ll check emails to see if there’s anything urgent that has to be responded to. The rest I’ll file away until tomorrow, when again I’ll get up at 5 am. Also, tomorrow (your today as you read this) I’ll have a 5-hour plane ride back to the mainland that will largely be used to “catch up.” I’m not jockeying for leadership in the holiday martyr’s club (it doesn’t seem like work when you’re watching the sun rise over Poipu), I’m simply describing a typical Hotchkiss vacation. It’s been this way for the past 14 or 15 years. I’ve heard about getting “off the grid.” I’ve just never been able to do it.

Some of my colleagues rave about dropping off this proverbial grid. “It was amazing!” they enthuse. “I didn’t check one email for 5 days!” I wonder what weird u-turn technology has taken when we feel we’ve created this monster we have to escape from, hiding in some far-flung unwired backwater, hiding from the penetrating gaze of our Outlook in-box. A number of analogies spring to mind: the fiery eyeball of Sauron that scans the Middle Earth landscape, ready to rain down pure, malevolent evil on the unwary tourist (or hobbit). Or, perhaps more appropriately, a massive wired mesh similar to a bug zapper, ready to trap and jolt any innocent vacationer who is foolish enough to fire up their laptop.

Much as we’d love we’d love to blame technology for our digital indentureship, it’s not really the one who’s at fault here. We started going down this path the minute we decided we wanted to work with ideas rather than physical things. My first job was loading 50-pound bags of various animal feed into the back of semi trailers. Had I chosen to stick with that original career path, I would have no problem leaving my job behind. It’s hard to pack a warehouse full of pig feed and several 18-wheelers in your suitcase. Getting “off the grid” would have simply meant changing location.

But today I earn my living by constructing ideas rather than stuff, and ideas are pretty portable. They have a nasty habit of following you around the world. In fact, the whole justification of getting “off the grid” is to recharge your mental batteries so you can come up with more ideas. It may cut into your vacation time, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It’s not often I gaze longingly into the back of an empty semi, wishing I had 45 tons of something to load into it. A few hours on a laptop seems like a pretty good trade off to me.

And let’s face it. My day job has allowed me to travel to places like Kauai with my family. This grid we speak of disparagingly is the very same grid that allows me to earn my living the other 350 days of the year. It’s often frustrating and the pressures can be downright debilitating some days, but it’s also challenging and exciting. One of the main reasons I don’t mind staying “on the grid” during my vacation times is that I find a change of scene often helps me attack problems with a new perspective.

“But what about your family?” you ask. Getting up early to spend time with my laptop almost seems like I’m conducting some illicit affair. It’s actually a topic I’ve discussed at length with my wife and daughters. We realize that this is a mixed bag, with pros and cons. But we all agree that the pros far outweigh the cons. And, besides, they all carry their own personal “grids” around as well.

Someday, perhaps, I’ll truly get “off the grid” and I’ll have a new view of things. But as for today, this column is rapidly drawing to a close, I’m seeing a faint pink glow in the sky over Kauai and the birds are starting to sing. All in all, it’s looking like another fabulous day, thanks to the “Grid.”

Originally published in Mediapost’s Search Insider Mar 31. 2011