Last week, as I was sitting on the beach in Durban, two German girls approached me and asked if I would watch their things while they went into the water.
“We’ll be gone ten minutes,” one said.
“OK,” I replied.
“You don’t even have to watch it really,” she explained. “We’ll just put our bags next to you and then cover them with a towel.”
“OK,” I repeated.
“And if you watch our bags,” she added. “Then we can watch yours when you want to go in the water.”
It was at this point that I wondered if she and I had a different understanding of “OK.”
Even if that was the case, I found the whole exchange somewhat peculiar. It was almost as if she had asked someone else to watch her bag and they told her there was a 5-minute limit. Or maybe the person said that she could leave the bag, but that they wouldn’t stop anyone who came by and picked through it. Regardless, it seemed that this girl was under the impression that I was the type of person who would only do someone a favor if one is offered to me in return.
As it turns out, I am exactly that kind of person. I hate favors – even the easy ones, like letting someone borrow a pen or giving change for a $20. I find it annoying when people ask and I assume that everyone else feels the same.
I can’t help it. It’s just the way I’m wired.
But an interesting thing has happened in the month since I’ve been away: That’s changed. I don’t welcome doing favors, exactly, but I also don’t pretend not to hear when I’m asked.
Can I move down two seats to make room for your party of four? Already on it.
Can I take a picture of you standing in front of a whale skeleton? Sure. Why don’t you finish that nub of an ice cream cone first? I can wait.
Can I take your child into the deep water and teach him how to swim? Well, no, actually. I still have my limits. And if you want to drown your kid, you’re going to have to do it on yourself.
It’s not that I’ve never done those things before, it’s just that they felt like work and I would have preferred not to have been asked in the first place. Now, I just don’t care – and, for me, that passes as progress.
I’m not sure what’s made me change my tune. It could be a simple byproduct of leaving New York, a city that is notoriously short-tempered and fast-paced, where no one even bothers not to walk through the photo you’re trying to take, let alone stops to help you stage it. Or it could be because I don’t know anyone here and I’m happy (subconsciously, even) that someone is talking to me. Or maybe it’s because now that I am free to spend most of my time exactly as I want to, it’s of no real concern if I have someone’s beach bag next to me.
I’m not sure – but I’d put my money on the last one.
The curious piece of this puzzle is that I have exactly the same amount of free time now as I did before. It simply feels like there’s more of it because the hours that are “mine” fall during a better part of the day – specifically, during daylight hours.
“It’s actually a great arrangement,” I told a friend last week. “I’m keeping New York time for work. So I have the whole day free to do whatever I want and then I sign online at 3 or 4 in the afternoon and work until 11 or 12. It’s ideal, really.”
“That sounds awful,” she said. “When do you get to go part-time?”
Again, I had to wonder if we were speaking the same language. But I didn’t bother arguing with her.
“April,” I said. “It should be good.”
Not like the deal I have going now isn’t good. Doing my job is much more tolerable now that it’s preceded by a morning at the beach, or a 3-hour hike up Table Mountain; and it’s far more manageable when the end of the day comes not at 6 p.m., when I still have so much I want to do for myself, but at midnight, when I can just take whatever frustrations I have amassed during the previous eight hours and literally put them to bed. By the time I wake up, I usually don’t care about what happened the night before – and even if I do, I have a whole day to adjust my attitude.
Put another way, my primary focus is no longer work. It’s on living – as it should be and as I’ve often been urged to make it. In fact, if there’s one piece of advice I’ve received countless times over the years, it’s that I needed to find a way to take work less personally. “Before you blow up,” more than one person has added.
I feel lucky to have finally found a way to do it. Even if I didn’t exactly manage to avoid the blow up.