The Voice of the Boss
To take time off for the Camino, I first had to get permission from my boss. It wouldn’t be easy. My boss is what Yiddish speakers call a nudge.
The view from Jersey City.
What’s a camino? he said.
A camino, in Spanish, is, literally, a way, or a path. Figuratively it can be a kind of path too. The Camino de Santiago is a 1000-year-old pilgrimage route across northern Spain, and its most famous route, the Camino Frances, is just shy of 500 miles long, and you are supposed to walk it.
To do what?
The Spanish do have cars, or so I’ve heard.
Not the point.
But you hate walking. It’s like standing, but slower. Gives you backaches. The worst is walking and standing, like in a museum. You like the idea of museums, but you’d like them more if someone pushed you through them in a wheelbarrow.
Can’t I pretend the Camino is like hiking?
It’s not like hiking. It’s relatively flat, other than the first day. When we hike we burn our legs and our lungs, and our heart races, and then we get to be on the top of something. We burn fat, build muscle, and win. And that’s the American Way.
It’s true: I’m a hiker at heart. (It’s also true that my boss lacks any and all boundaries. My boss being, of course, myself). When I’m in shape, I’m a merciless hiker. I used to go up Colorado’s Fourteeners at a clip of about a thousand vertical feet every forty minutes,
Ortstock in the background, 2009
for hours. I powered my way up Braunwald’s Ortstock, in the Glarner Alps of Switzerland, and back, in only a handful of hours, in time for a late lunch; my aunt, who’d lived there for forty years, didn’t believe I’d actually found the top of it. But walking has never interested me. I’ve always wanted to get to the top of something, wanted to put my legs, lungs, and heart to the test.
I didn’t even know how long it took to walk 500 miles. I had once accidentally biked over 80 miles, in Ireland (there was a certain map issue), in part of a day. But then I hadn’t been able to sit down the next day. I’d hiked to the top of 14,000-foot-plus Long’s Peak, outside of Denver, in a sixteen-hour gain of thousands of vertical feet. But afterward I barely made it home without falling asleep at the wheel, even with the radio blaring and Chris Cash riding shotgun and encouraging me to stay awake thus: zzzzzzzz. I’d camped at Yosemite for a few days. But we had driven there (Alejandro Pena-Prieto, Adam Weiss, Mark Thompson, and I) from San Francisco; only an ass would have walked it, I think we can all agree.
Turns out the Camino typically takes four to six weeks.
My boss spit out his coffee. And he doesn’t even drink coffee. Weeks?
Weeks. But I’ll confess, I had envisioned the usual vacation length: two weeks.
That’s because you are an American, my boss said, and that’s what Americans do: we work. 96% of the year.
We spend as much time at work as we think the economy requires, and we seem to think the economy needs us not to practice any real family values by actually being with family, or to take the time out for the physical and mental rest that would reduce our health care costs and make us more productive.
With one exception that took place between jobs, I hadn’t taken a vacation longer than two weeks since, well, since I entered the working world at the ripe age of 25. I had hid out in law school as long as they would let me, but after three years they asked me to leave. They even threw a party, gave me a costume and a hat and let me speak on whatever came to mind.
And ever since then, vacations got two weeks, max. Two weeks in Germany and Switzerland in 1993. Two more, adding Austria, in 1997. A week in Spain in 1998. Twelve days in Switzerland later that year. Many other trips to Switzerland or Italy or both, 13 days or less. Long weekenders to Canada. Fourteen days in Israel.
And that’s just the half of it. As I said in my last post, I thought the timing of the trip could not have been worse.
I had spent well over a year pushing a boulder up a hill to get divorced. It seemed every part of my being was straining to push the process along, so that I could move on. What could have been accomplished in a six- (or eight-) hour negotiation seemed to me to have taken only slightly less time than the universe has spent cooling since the Big Bang. Fourteen grueling months of weeks without end, the longest I think I’ve ever waited for anything, the most I’ve ever wanted anything. I couldn’t start my new life soon enough – which is another way of saying that I was resisting the present with all my might.
I was determined, when it was over, to stand on the summit I’d been climbing toward and look in the direction of my new life, and then to begin to head in that direction. I was in for a big surprise.
The False Summit
Few undertakings in life require the willpower of mountaineering. You may be freezing, your legs noodles, burning, nearly useless, your lungs seared by bellows-like breathing at altitude. You don’t think you can go one more step, but you keep going because you can see the summit, it’s there, just ahead, always in front of you even as it plays hide-and-seek behind clouds and even its own lower flanks, and you tell yourself you will last until you reach the top. You can last until that final step, and then you will have no more left, no mas. You will be spent, but you will have conquered your summit.
And every mountaineer knows the crushing disappointment of reaching the longed-for peak, utterly spent, only to realize, from its improved perspective, that now, visible at last, is the real summit, and it’s so far away, impossibly far away.
As my divorce became final, I realized that my own longed-for summit remained tantalizingly in the distance. Getting divorced, I realized, is just part of the battle, or, to be less martial about it, it’s only one step in the transition. Once you’ve wrestled the past into submission and tied it up neatly, there’s still the fairly momentous matter of what to do next.
Who am I now? Where shall I find myself? With whom shall I surround myself?
Are you asking me? my boss said, bemused. Of course he was useless on such things.
The questions were large, and the answers remained as out of reach as the actual summit I could see, far, far up ahead.
Somehow, I kept taking one step after another. I made dozens of trips to Home Depot and furniture stores and fixed up the house in which I was living, in Bend, turning it into a vacation rental with some promise. I put it on the market for sale. I continued to run Feroce Coaching and Hot Blue Coaching, as well as to share the management of Charles River Recruiting. With strangers living in my house and paying me to go on vacation, I found myself trying on Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle. I slowly cut through the desperate procrastination impulse that did. Not. Want. To. Do. Two years of back taxes. All very slowly, or so it felt to me.
The good news was that all of this work required only a laptop and a phone. The bad news was that, because I work for myself, no one pays me when I don’t work. I was nervous about not working for over a month.
And who will run the vacation rental while you’re traipsing around Spain? Someone would need to run the vacation rental.
I hadn’t thought of that.
Of course you hadn’t. Even if you find a person, you’ll have to train that person. A salary will cut into the profits. Who’s going to answer potential renters’ questions by email and phone asap, so as to land them and their lucre, and who’s going to book them and send them contracts and run their credit cards and send them follow-up emails with instructions? Something will go wrong with the vacation rental. The cleaners aren’t very reliable either.
I was unhappy with the idea of tenants complaining, which seemed to be as important to some vacationers as the actual vacation itself.
You won’t be able to take new coaching clients. You’ll make less money. You just took off two weeks, in May, to go to Israel! How will you coach even your existing clients? You can’t guarantee them connectivity from the road in rural Spain, and making appointments is one of the sine qua nons of coaching. You’ll also need a new phone, a Europe-ready phone. You’ll need to find some kind of wireless capability for your computer, so you can get emails without relying upon hostels in rural Spain.
Already exhausted by my haul up the mountain of divorce, already hyperventilating from the realization that the peak for which I’d been straining was really only a false summit, even overwhelmed and at times depressed, I simply hadn’t the energy to contemplate all of it.
My boss, which is to say my self, was just shaking his head.
How are you going to do everything you need to do before September 16?
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please
Up until very recently, I didn’t really want to go on the Camino. But it did not matter what I wanted to do or not do. I was going. And on the eve of my departure, I may have finally figured out why.
Surely there is something else to do.
For weeks this thought – a boss thought, if you will – has plagued me. Over the last few years – marriage and assumption of step-parent status, move to a new city (Seattle), start-up craziness and coaching, drafting a book proposal and writing a book, the decline of the relationship and the separation-cum-endless-divorce-process – I’d become quite adept at watching my thoughts. I realized I was catching this thought, or more likely what I call a wordless impulse, more and more often.
My to-do list had seemed endless for so long that, excepting brief moments, such as in yoga or skiing, by this summer I found it nearly impossible to relax, to quiet the jumpiness of my mind and the sense that there was something else I should, I must, be doing. Once I told my mother I’d join her on her pilgrimage, my already long to-do list threatened to suffocate me under its weight.
On top of everything else, you are going to plan a 500-mile walk and how to manage your life from rural Spain?
Always something else to do, to be doing, and yet to what end I was now rather far less sure. I thought of Dante’s opening lines to The Inferno, “In the middle of my life’s path, I found myself lost in a dark forest with no straight path I could see anywhere.” (M.L. Rosenthal translation, one of about 20 quite different variations).
In the middle of my life’s path, then, I found myself on a dark-blue couch in Jersey City, New Jersey. The couch belonged to my good friend from law school, Adam Weiss, and it was during a month in Jersey City, having run like hell, for weeks, not just to climb but to move the mountains between me and leaving Bend, and my house, and the money I put into it in a triumph of hope over experience, that the clamor in my mind began at last to subside, and I decided I knew at last the reason I was walking across Spain.
It was time to slow down. I was going to Spain to slow down.