Saturday, June 21, 2014

Family Time Versus Writing Time or What I Did on My Summer Vacation by Sam Morton

My wife and I used to watch Criminal Minds. She recorded it and we’d settle onto our plush little corner of the couch, remote in hand, to view it after the kids went to bed. Each episode began and ended with some obscure quote by Yeats or Coleridge or some other literary figure. It set the philosophical tone of the episode.

Here’s an example: “The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary. Men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.” Joseph Conrad said that.

I’d like to offer my own quote to set the tone for today’s blog: “Any man who does not embrace death has never been on vacation with his in-laws.”

In every interview with an uber-successful woman I’ve ever seen or read, the interviewer inevitably asks some version of what I believe is a rather insulting question: “How do you balance work and family?” It’s insulting because it’s a question rarely, if ever, asked of a successful man.

Trust me; the battle to earn an income and raise children well is gender neutral. And like most people, I always want what I don’t have. When I’m writing, and writing intensely, that’s when I want to be with family most…until I start spending time with them.

By “them,” I mean my in-laws. I’m not talking about my wife’s immediate family: mom, dad, sister, two brothers and their wives and kids. I’m talking about all them plus close to 50 more relatives. As people all over the world have said, “There ought to be a law.”

My wife and I have had this discussion a number of times. Granted neither one of us is a trained sociologist, but here’s the point I’ve made to her repeatedly (usually during or right after a family vacation): You spend the first 18 years of your life trying to get away from these people. Why, then, do you spend the next 40 trying to “get the family together?” It’s like a forced marriage. No way am I getting my thousand words written today or, most likely, this week.

Her counter is that I’m male, and therefore stupid, and should just shut up.

“It destroys one’s nerves to be amiable every day to the same human being.”—Benjamin Disraeli.

The vacation rules, as I understood them, were that we would say, “Tuesday at 10 a.m., we’re going to the Washington Monument.” Others could join us at the monument or not. The choice is entirely theirs.

Seems to me if you’ve thrown the plan out there and all 50 billion of your relatives have traveled from their home galaxy to be with family, we’re likely gonna have a crowd. So here, my friends, is the salient question:

How does one get 50 trillion in-laws to move at the same time, in the same direction, toward the same destination?

The answer: The same way you divide any number by zero: It is a mathematical impossibility. IT CAN’T BE DONE!

My family gatherings are much simpler. First off, as my daughter summed up one day, “So, Daddy, let me get this straight. Other than you, Uncle Mike, and Aunt Cathy, pretty much everybody in your family is dead?” Bingo, kid. Other than about a dozen aunts, uncles, and cousins, she hit the nail on the head.

I have one cousin who “don’t take to people.” The last family reunion we had, he climbed up a tree and “throwed up.”

When I was a kid, the reunions were fun because we had this older relative who had Tourette’s syndrome. In the middle of a sentence, he’d throw his head back and let out a sound like a whooping crane. Everybody called him “Whoop.” These were simple affairs—Big K Cola, large bags of generic grocery store cookies, potato salad, and ham and cheese roll-ups. “Hon, the hardest part is takin’ the plastic off the cheese!”

Even Whoop probably wouldn’t come to a reunion with people throwing up from the trees. And he damn sure wouldn’t come to one with 50 gazillion people trying to be at the same place at the same time. Just an observation.

“The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another’s desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together.”—Erma Bombeck.

As the comedians say, “You can’t make this stuff up.” And it makes great material to write about…if I only had the time.

So, not to sound insulting or anything since I’m asking everyone, but how do you balance family time and writing time?


  1. I’m afraid that while my kids were young I was more like the guy in the Harry Chapin song, “Cat’s in the Cradle” who didn’t have enough time for their kids. Now I don’t worry about life on a week-to-week basis.

    When there are family obligations I don’t get much writing done. Other weeks I work at it mostly fulltime and it balances out.

    ~ Jim

  2. My in-laws are getting together in Ocean City, NJ, for a week in July. They do that every few years.

    When they were kids living in Philadelphia, the family made the trek every year. As far as I can see, we ritually attempt to recreate that experience. I participate in most of the activities, but from a sit back and watch perspective.

    My family gathers for important events like weddings and funerals. The atmosphere is often brittle and we are very polite to one another. I wouldn't recognize most of my cousins if I ran into them on the street.

  3. Sam, I come from a rather large family. My dad was one of eleven, my mother one of four, and I'm the oldest of six. Our family reunions are getting fewer and fewer since my parents and most of my aunts and uncles are now gone. At one time I had twelve aunts and twelve uncles and forty-five first cousins. Unlike you, I love our family reunions, but then they are only one day affairs. Most of my siblings live within driving distance and we get together for sibling nights at least once a month and then, of course, there are the weddings, funerals, showers, graduation open houses, etc. I have three grown children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren now. Christmas involves lots of activities and there's usually a camping trip in the summer with some of my siblings.

    Okay, finding time for writing. Yes, it can be difficult at times, but I wouldn't change my large family - close and extended for anything. I would miss the laughter and fun we have. Of course, I don't have any relative who climbs trees and throws up, but I did have a very talented uncle who was an engineer. He moved to California and would work for six months until he had enough money and then quit until the money ran out so he could lie on the beach and contemplate his big toe - or so he said.

  4. I am lucky enough to belong in a family where, if we were not related. we would great friends. Each one of my generation plus spouses and children took a special vacation with my parents. We like to get together. At this stage of my life I put writing on hold to spend time with my family.

  5. Like Jim, I don't write much when family is around. I try for that balance.

    Like KM, my family was from Philadelphia, too. We annually also made the trek to Ocean City, NJ for the family vacation, each renting a house and gathering together, with, as Sam said--disastrous consequences. We don't do it anymore, although some of my cousins frequent Hatteras Island.

    The immediate family vacations together (I include my sister and sister-in-law as immediate family since we are close.)

    Sam--we've finally agreed on a topic!

  6. You are so right - when is a male politician ever asked how he balances family and work?
    We live far from both branches of our family tree, so we really clear the calendar to spend holidays with family. Now that my older daughter is getting married, I see that some adjustments will have to take place in holiday plans. As Tim Gunn says, We'll make it work!

  7. I enjoyed your quote, Sam. I will think of it while I'm planning this year's vacation with in-laws. I have given up writing during those visits because there are too many distractions. However, I take notes because it's always interesting, and I get lots of story ideas.