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Vacation Guide for Geeks

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 8/1/2001

It's a sickness, I'll admit--a severe reluctance to spend time doing absolutely nothing.

In my early wage-earning days, I tended to look upon vacations not as a well-deserved break but as chance to make up all the time I was wasting doing work I didn't really care about. Years went by when I wouldn't allow myself a beach vacation, believing I'd be better off engaged in some form of self-improvement. So I'd end up in some European capital or another, anxiously trying to memorize information off placards in a dozen art museums or forcing myself to speak a new language that I'd only just begun to teach myself via Berlitz tapes on the plane ride over.

These efforts were, of course, doomed. Two weeks contemplating the medieval churches of Tuscany did absolutely nothing to counteract the intellect-numbing 50 other weeks of the year I spent reporting the latest trends in apartment construction and finance for a housing-industry publication. In retrospect, I think my tortured workday/holiday dialectic did more harm than good. Flogging myself with Italian architectural history for a week did not help me move on from my position as a trade-magazine hack, but a few days of genuine relaxation and mindless fun might have afforded me the clarity from which good decisions are made.

I eventually learned how to enjoy vacations. In July 1993, after a few weeks of dating, my husband-to-be invited me to Nags Head, N.C., where several of his co-workers had rented a beach house for a week. I was a little scared. Not of going away with a guy I'd only just met or being stuck in close quarters with people I didn't know, but of wasting six whole days lying motionless on the sand, drinking beer, and occasionally standing up to play Frisbee or wade into the surf. Could I survive all those hours of inebriated inactivity? It was rough at first--I kept checking my watch for our next meal, the only "event" that gave structure to our days--but I was soon reduced to a contented lump like everyone else by the beer and sun and mindless chatter and predictable stream of classic-rock radio.

I don't remember all the books I brought with me on that trip, but I'm fairly certain The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke was among them. I was on a big Rilke kick then. I'd copy out large sections of "Sonnets to Orpheus" and "Duino Elegies" into my journal, swooning over the elegant translations on the right-hand pages and dreaming that one day I'd teach myself enough German to get through the originals printed on the left side.

My boyfriend and his work pals, all engineers for IBM, were probably reading normal beach stuff, Ken Follett and Tom Clancy; if they'd realized I was over there on my towel reading early-20th-century German verse, I'm sure they'd have found some clever way to mock me for the apparent incongruity. But to me, all the elements felt perfectly aligned: the nearly unbearable heat; the loud, fierce surf; an endless stream of Zeppelin and Springsteen from the tinny radio; my whirlwind romance in its first month; and lush, over-the-top lines like, "Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'/ hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me/ suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed/ in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing/ but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure."

Lots of literature-loving people take pride in the trash they read on the beach: Their John Grisham or Mary Higgins Clark is a signal to themselves and the world that they really are on vacation, mind as well as body. I tried that--Carl Hiaasen was briefly my favorite strictly-for-kicks author--but eventually found that it doesn't suit me to deliberately alter my reading standards just because I'm on vacation. I genuinely enjoy reading challenging, difficult books on the beach or out in the woods or up in the mountains, and I don't think this is merely a vestige of my earlier self-improvement obsession.

I'm past my Rilke phase--these days, I find myself unconvinced and unmoved by those same gorgeous lines that used to make me swoon--but I have found Marcel Proust to be an enduring beach-read choice. My sister brought the first volume of In Search of Lost Time with her last month when she joined my husband and me on a return to the Outer Banks, our first full-week beach vacation since that risky, romantic whim eight years ago. She's a classicist who spends her days poring over ancient Greek, so any book in English is a mental joyride for her, even one that's festooned with paragraph-long sentences. Proust's writing forces you to read very slowly and dispense with concerns about plot, action, forward motion. It requires you to be still. Isn't that exactly what you need on vacation, rather than some anxiety-producing potboiler crammed with cadavers?

While my sister read Proust, my husband read A.S. Byatt's Angels and Insects. But I didn't read much, just a few Elizabeth Bishop poems. Instead I scribbled in my journal a little, or listened to Joe Henderson and Lee Morgan through headphones and stared at the surf, my mind a blank. I guess I'm learning.

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