Apair of hefty Percherons--leather harnesses rubbing deep grooves into their broad haunches--was pulling a sleigh full of tourists across a narrow Wyoming valley quilted cold and white. The horses were doing their job.
In the distance stood the elk, scores of them, perhaps hundreds. The bulls, balancing antlers as ornate as chandeliers, raised their regal heads, kept chewing, stared. They, too, were doing their job.
The tourists, huddled against an icy wind, noses red and runny, inhaled the beauty of the place and thought how glad they were to be at the elk refuge outside of Jackson Hole and not home. They were not doing their jobs, and they were content.
Or were they?
Maybe, by ditching the city for a winter vacation in the Tetons, they were putting that long-sought promotion at risk. Maybe they were mentally flinching as they imagined the avalanche of work that would bury them on their return. Or maybe they never really stopped thinking about their jobs at all, packing their career anxieties alongside their skis and their poles, pulling them like invisible sleighs, toting them like imaginary antlers on their heads.
In this mixed-up, crazy, downsizing world, where no worker is indispensable anymore, obsessing about work while on vacation is a way to demonstrate dedication, a form of insurance against professional calamity.
It is also, of course, completely delusional.
The French have an expression that sums up the way work can warp you. A "professional deformation" is, for instance, what you'd call it when my mother, who taught deaf children, came home from work each evening and signed to us while talking too loudly. ("Mo-om," we'd patronize, "we're not hard of hearing and we don't read sign language.")
I suffer two deformations: I am intolerant of the long verbal windup ("burying the lead" in journo-jargon), even among intimates. And I cease to fully exist if I don't have access to a newspaper--a good newspaper--every morning, no matter what the view from my window: jagged snowy peaks or swaying palms on alabaster sand.
Without a hefty newspaper to devour--and this is usually my situation on vacations--I feel unmoored, adrift, as if the world were a sea of random events with no context.
Shut up and relax, you say?
I know, but it gets worse.
With no clear mental picture of the world, my job anxiety roars into the void. What will I write about when I return from vacation if I don't know what's happened while I was gone? Who wants to read about my sleigh rides across an elk refuge? My encounter with a moose while jogging? My failed attempt at making snow angels while giddy from the heat of a hot tub?
I mean, apart from my parents?
Enter the "virtual office." (Don't leave home without it.)
In the absence of a good newspaper, my lifeline to work becomes the telephone. I call in for messages. I'm not sure why. It's not as though Bob Dole is going to get on the horn to explain to me personally why he looks five years younger every time he picks up a new batch of delegates.
Because there are no coincidences, the very day I glean a dozen messages from across the miles, I pick up a copy of the Wall Street Journal, the only "big" newspaper I was able to find.
And there it is, my sickness--our sickness--in black and white, in a huge story on how Americans work so hard they have apparently forgotten how to enjoy goofing off:
"In an economy fixated on leanness," said the Journal, "failing to screen voice mail during vacations carries the same kind of risk as ducking out of the office at 5 p.m."
Great. I leave the office at 5 p.m. all the time.
And that seems to be the American dilemma: At work, we dream of having more time at home. At home, we fret about what was left undone at work.
Which is also why, when I cross my threshold at 5:30 p.m., I kiss my child, then flick on my computer and commune with the office for a while.
Does that sound dreary? I don't mean it to. After all, unlike the draft horses and the elk, I know how to have fun.
I take vacations.
* Robin Abcarian's column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.