I think that particularly for academics who work in the humanities or social sciences, there's a messy proximity between work life and play life. For my job, I write about and teach about novels and films. In my play time, I consume lots of novels and films. Mostly, the resonance between what I joyfully do during my off hours and what I am happy to be paid to do during my on hours means that I have a very happy life.
But sometimes, the blur can be confusing, as though I can't tell whether I am, or should be, working or playing. I feel this especially acutely during times when I am officially "off." Or I think I'm "off." As an academic, this comes up both during vacation and visits to family (these two are often one and the same).
During the great wait that occurs as the various babies on the trip nap, eat, nap again, are sunscreened, scream, nap, scream, and finally can be packed up to go to the beach, I feel that I should be doing something.....
Should I knock out a paper assignment description for a fall class while my baby is in the nap portion of the nap/scream cycle? Should I read the article that might help with my revise and resubmit?
Or, because I am on vacation, should I ask the willing and lovely grandparents to listen for the baby while I sneak off for a pond swim with the husband? Maybe I could ride a bike to the bakery and have a chocolate-filled croissant (hey, it's vacation!)?
The think is, either thread of choices would be fine and make me feel good.
The first set clearly belongs to the category "work" and would allow me a feeling of accomplishment, give me a sense that I am doing good battle against the semester's loom, and would let me feel greater freedom to fully enjoy the non-productive pleasures of vacation throughout the rest of the day: afternoon visits to an oyster bar, seal watching, testing floaty toys for the baby's approval.
The second set belongs to the category play. This group would also produce good feelings because these activities are so clearly a treat a silly reprieve from my normal life during which there are no free babysitters, I do not eat sweets for breakfast, and it's hard to find the time to talk with my husband about things that are neither our work nor our child. These are joyfully purposeless activities.
But more often than I admit, I do neither. Instead, I engage in what I am tempted to call joylessly purposeless activities. Not surprisingly, dear reader, they mostly involve dinking around on the computer or the internet, flagging things in my facebook feed that are vaguely work-related, reading yet another depressing piece of clickbait about being a mom on the tenure track. Or, because I am who I am, rewriting my to-do list, that self-flagellating act of transcription.
The problem with this blurry middle path, is that it lacks the clarity. It's unclean, lacking a purity of commitment to working or playing. And it is so deeply unsatisfying--a mindless way to spend the precious time of vacation days.
And so, I have been trying to ask myself explicitly, "do you want to be working or playing right now? What would feel good?" If the answer is playing, I find that I need the activity to be very clearly playful, almost a return to childhood. Let's play ladderball (it's fun, trust me); let's take the baby to the pond; let's read novels where someone gets stabbed in the eye in the first chapter (so, this is a kind of fun particular to me); let's get pizza and watch Jaws so that we're all afraid to get in the water. Let's play.