Tag Archives: New York Times

David Brooks, Redux

About two months ago I wrote a post entitled The Haimish Line based on a New York Times op-ed article by David Brooks.  His essay touched me so deeply that I wrote a blog entry to express my enthusiasm and support.

Well, he’s done it again.  On October 28th Brooks authored an op-ed piece entitled The Life Report that hit so close to home it felt like it was written just for me.  His ruminations on why people choose to follow, or not to follow, their dreams addresses the central theme of this blog and could not be a more apt topic for discussion.  So, for a second time, I offer a post based on his writings; let’s call it “David Brooks, Redux!”

Brooks describes a collection of reminiscences written for the 50th reunion of the Yale class of 1942. While a few stories were inspiring and spoke of years enjoyed to the fullest, the majority lamented a rather mundane and pedestrian life that was endured not enjoyed; a passive existence in which events happened to them rather than a life aggressively forged to match their hopes and dreams. For example, Brooks tells how one man looked back on an uneventful career at an insurance company and concluded “Wish my self-profile was more exciting, but its a little late now.”  He relates the bittersweet memories of those who lament the path not taken.  “I deeply regret not moving to Australia when I was married there 25 years ago.”

Those who did have a fulfilling and satisfying fifty years describe the role that chance played in enriching their lives–”a pivotal and thoroughly unexpected moment that changed everything and took their life in a new direction mid-course.”  As I look back on my own “Life Report” I see exactly that pattern–a pivotal moment that changed my life forever.  In this case it was an offer to live and work abroad, an opportunity described in My London Epiphany. Until then I was a conventional, 35-year-old college professor with a good job, great wife, two kids, and house with a picket fence. (Sorry, no dog.)  By any measure life was good, but I was in a rut; life was simply happening, not being molded or directed.  Without a mid-course correction there is no doubt I would now be writing about my gold watch, grandchildren, and golf game rather than hiking the Himalayas, taking a camel safari in the Gobi, and living on a tropical island paradise.

After receiving that offer I closed my office, rented the house, and moved the family to England for three and a half months. Thank God I was willing to take that initial risk because this working vacation opened my eyes to other opportunities to live in exotic locales, experience new cultures, and have adventures usually seen only in National Geographic.  That initial posting was followed by 30 wonderful years of travel and work in such faraway places as Zimbabwe, Kenya, Turkey, Mauritius, Australia, Malaysia, Borneo, Israel, Nepal, Mongolia, and Bhutan–experiences described in my memoir On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.

People tell me that I am lucky to have traveled the world and had so many amazing adventures. I am lucky only in the sense of being given the opportunity to change the direction of my life.  However, those opportunities are not unique to me;  in fact, you had one yourself when you began reading this blog, which explains how you and your family can have exactly the same type of experiences.

So, it is not a question of having the chance to set sail in a new direction; that chance is out there waiting for you.  Instead, it’s a question of what you do with that chance–whether or not you have the gumption and the spirit to take a risk and try something completely new.  That risk may pay off; it may not–life does not come with guarantees.  However,  Brooks ends his essay by saying that in all the reports he read from the class of 1942 “nobody regretted the risks they took and the life changes they made, even when they failed.”

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The Haimish Line (with Apologies to David Brooks)

David Brooks, a well-known columnist for the NY Times, wrote an essay entitled “The Haimish Line” that I would love for everyone to read. (It is available at www.nytimes.com/2011/08/30/opinion/brooks-the-haimish-line.html.)

According to Brooks, the Yiddish word haimish suggests “warmth, domesticity, and unpretentious conviviality.”  It is the feeling you have at holiday time when sipping wine, telling stories, and laughing for the thousandth time at Uncle Louie’s bad jokes.  It is the emotions that wash over you when sharing good food and good times with close friends.  It is the comfort you sense when you are someplace friendly and familiar.  Finally, and the reason I want you to read this article, it is the experience you have when you go on a working vacation and become part of a neighborhood, community, and country.

In the article Brooks tells a story about spending time with his family at some basic safari camps in Kenya devoid of the luxuries routinely available at more upscale African retreats. As Brooks describes it:  “These simple camps were friendly, warm and familial. We got to know the other guests at big, communal dinner tables. At one camp we got to play soccer with the staff on a vast field in the Serengeti before an audience of wildebeests. At another camp, we had impromptu spear-throwing and archery competitions with the kitchen staff … I can tell you that this is the very definition of heaven for a 12-year-old boy.”

When the family then moved to a more luxurious camp the results were rather surprising.  “These more elegant camps felt colder. At one, each family had its own dinner table, so we didn’t get to know the other guests. The tents were spread farther apart. We also didn’t get to know the staff, who served us mostly as waiters, the way they would at a nice hotel …  It occurred to me that when we moved from a simple camp to a more luxurious camp, we crossed an invisible Haimish Line. The simpler camps had it, the more elegant ones did not.”

I have the same feelings when traveling.  When I am on a working vacation I do not simply go to famous sights–museums, churches, galleries–but also try to become an integral part of the local culture.  I make friends, meet neighbors, shop at area merchants, and attend social, cultural, and religious events.   I travel to important locales as well as “off the beaten path” places tourists rarely see but give a deeper appreciation for a country’s soul–like a foreign visitor attending a State Fair. Like my times spent with friends and family, these working vacations were warm, friendly, and convivial.

However, when traveling  on my “own dime,” staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, and viewing a country through the windows of a tour bus, I rarely feel like I am coming to understand a country and its people.  While certainly appreciating the sights, food, and leisure, my interactions with the culture are usually formal and distant.   I am seeing a country but not feeling it.  I am enjoying a country but not experiencing it.  To quote Brook’s own words, I  have crossed that invisible “Haimish Line.”

Brooks finishes his column with some wonderful advice:   “Buy experiences instead of things;  Buy many small pleasures instead of a few big ones.”  This is one of the best arguments I can think of for taking a working vacation–it is truly an experience you will never forget.