They say that taking time off from work is one of the best ways of improving workplace productivity. The idea is supposed to be that you return from a break - if possible, one that involves travelling somewhere - with your emotional batteries recharged and with a new enthusiasm for whatever career you might have. I do agree that holidays or some form of time away from work are an essential part of surviving one's professional life, regardless of how much you love what you do. The alternative, seen all too frequently, is to risk suffering from burnout (a common fate among yuppies and high-flyers); or at the very least, to find oneself struggling to survive the drudgery of the average work week.
The embarrassing truth, however - as I discovered many years ago - is that while being on a break from work is wonderful, it doesn't necessarily fill me with excitement once the holiday is over and it is time to return to reality. In fact, there seems to be some kind of bizarre proportional equation whereby the longer I am away from work, the more intensely I want to stay away from it! For the longest time, I kept my "inner loafer" a secret, embarrassed by my desire to escape my normally workaholic existence. More recently, I have begun to wonder if I am in fact that unusual. Even worse, I'm beginning to find myself justifying that desire to escape, even though I usually manage to avoid indulging it.
As a result of all this over-thinking, I approached my editor at SWM some time ago with a degree of trepidation, after deciding to take a few weeks off from writing my fortnightly "Food for Thought" column. This is of course always a dangerous proposition when you are dealing with somebody who knows you inside out and has each of her ten wily fingers poised over just the right buttons to push in order to prevent any insubordination. My editor has successfully managed to dissuade me from taking a much-needed break for the better part of the last five years, but this time the outcome was different. Maybe something in my melancholic bearing convinced her that the wretched creature standing before her begging for freedom genuinely needed some time off.
Her mistake! After promising to take one month off, I have shamelessly extended that to a period closer to two months. Don't judge me too harshly. I did wait five years for this! And in the middle of this period, on October 15th, we took the time to publish an interview on my short story writing in the Star magazine after one of my stories was awarded Highly Commended in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2010 (the link for the interview: http://www.thedailystar.net/magazine/2010/10/03/interview.htm).
But the truth was, once I had settled into the unaccustomed sensation of my temporary freedom, I could not help noticing how brilliantly blue was the sky overhead, how fragrant the coffee that could now be smelt at leisure instead of being gulped down desperately to provide fuel, how beautiful the occasional flower successfully fighting for survival in Dhaka's urban jungle; and above all, how liberating it was not to be tied down to a fortnightly deadline for this column.
True to form, I must confess that the longer I have been away, the harder it has been to convince myself that it is time to return to my regular post. And my perusal of the letters column while I was away clearly indicated that no one was missing my contributions! But before my conscience successfully joined my work ethic in heading south, I decided to take decisive steps to stem the rot. Of course, there was also the fact that I knew that my editor and friend would come after me with a shot gun (and refuse me any time off for the next decade) if I dilly-dallied much longer…
But if my main problem with work appears to be that it involves - well, actually working, for one thing! - I have discovered that there are others who face more unusual dilemmas in the workplace. For example, female physical therapists, no matter how well-qualified they may be, invariably come across the odd customer (and let's face it, some of their customers can be very odd indeed) who think that they are offering a very different service from the one advertised. I have two good friends with a physiotherapy background, and some of the stories they have to tell are enough to make one's hair stand on end.
Interestingly, they also find themselves sometimes facing occupational hazards that are quite different from the standard sleazy proposition mentioned above. For example, on one occasion my friend Annalie had been disturbed all day by a carpenter working in the adjoining room to her treatment space. Fed up with the noise, she was getting ready to complain when things took a distinct turn for the worse. The hammering increased in volume just as she was treating a particularly paranoid patient with neck pain.
This person, a regular patient, had already made it very clear to Annalie that she allows nobody else to touch her neck, as it makes her feel anxious (perhaps the reason has its roots in some childhood teasing or trauma, or maybe she's just weird...). Anyway, at the point when Annalie had begun working on this delicate area, and had gripped the woman firmly by the neck, the carpenter's hammering next door resulted in one of the framed diplomas hanging on a wall taking a flying leap off the nail that had secured it in place. Needless to say, Annalie jumped, unconsciously - and very unfortunately - tightening her grip on the patient's neck. To cut a story short, the patient left with the session incomplete, not returning for a full month afterwards!
Then there is my friend Polly, who provides home treatments to selected patients in Bangladesh. Her stories are even weirder than Annalie's ones. For example, on one occasion while she was treating an elderly lady, the domestic worker of the house, Rumali, watched closely as she applied the teel oil for pain relief. Polly noticed, but thought that perhaps the young woman was taking an interest in learning about her massage techniques.
As she was leaving, Rumali subsequently sidled up to Polly and asked if she only did massage treatments or whether perhaps she did "other things too". Puzzled by the question, Polly asked her what kind of other things she had in mind. To her amazement, Rumali said, "Can you make a potion that will make a boy fall in love with me?" As Polly later said to me, in some indignation, "Did she think I was some kind of jhar-phook or shyster who just whips up some nonsensical ‘medicine’ for whatever problem anyone brings to me?!"
All of which goes to show that one must be careful when selecting careers, and even more careful when selecting clients. Some people often find themselves in quite the wrong field, with hazardous consequences. Like the first-time bank robber in Britain who tried to hold up the bank teller, and found himself clearly out of his depth as his nerves failed him. In sheer panic, he shouted “Stick your hands up – this is a screw-up”. Since he was apprehended less than five minutes afterwards when the police arrived to deal with the stick-up, truer words were never spoken…