A few weeks ago, I woke up to the usual barrage of deep-thought, big-picture, late-evening Slack messages about user onboarding from Ian Stewart, and I couldn’t help but notice something… Ian looked different.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Was his hair grayer? No, it’d always been pretty gray. Were his eyes beadier? No, they’d always… The job had clearly taken its toll on him, he seemed to be lacking his usual depth and detail. But he somehow seemed more approachable and friendly.
All kidding aside, I hate when Ian reminds me that on top of being a world-class product lead, WordPress theme OG, prolific reader, generally snazzy dresser, and a stereotypically friendly Canadian, he also has artistic skills to boot (said with some Canadian raising). So I did what any enterprising guy would do, and immediately tried to piggyback off of his talent.
Honestly, I thought he’d just laugh me off and we’d awkwardly never talk about it again. It was understandable. It was his cool new thing, done with his cool new iPad, and any typical cool kid would just hoard that cool new skill to themselves and make people jealous for months. But Ian’s a friendly guy, remember? And I’m good at asking for things politely. So with a little constant hounding…
That’s right. The hair. The glasses. The chin. Even that a-hole smirk. Perfection. Right down to the coolest detail.
What’s more, is that I’m pretty sure he drew it in the ~1hr window between me demanding and him delivering. Like “sure – just leave me alone.” And now I’m left with all these feelings that I don’t know how to deal with. “Why were you so mean about asking? Why didn’t you just let it go after he laughed you off? How can you repay him for this? You don’t have anything to offer. Does he really think of you as a friend? This is what friends do. Did he already have this on his iPad? What other Cain art does he have? Does he keep a little shrine to Cain in his basement? Are Meredith and Orvis safe?”
I hope he doesn’t hate me for writing this, because it’s actually meant to be an awkward Cain-esque thank you. I really like my new avatar, Ian. You’re an okay guy.
You may have missed it in the flurry of posts I’ve been writing recently, but this past year, I was fortunate enough to have some time off from work. During a chunk of that time we undertook a few house projects, most notably adding a breakfast nook, exposing the beams in our living room, and converting an old, closed-off stairway/closet into a bar. Given the title of this post, I bet you can guess which one we’ll be talking about today.
For the first time in one of my house projects, I tried to document as many steps in the process as possible. I failed at that, but I was able to cobble together some images from text messages and emails after the fact. I’ve laid them out here in chronological order, complete with witty commentary, so you’ll have to scroll all the way to the bottom to see the final product.
It’s also worth noting that our house is old… 1750’s old. I know that my European teammates are mostly scoffing at this (I’m looking at you, Miguel), but Maine was a different place in the 1750’s (Literally, Massachusetts. Figuratively, the frontier). The fact that it’s even standing is odds-defying. I don’t fault its early owners for the slanting floors or unevenly-spaced wall timbers – when Maine’s winter is on the horizon and you still have to cut down the tree to build the house, you get a free pass. These early construction decisions typically dictate the direction of our projects – mid-project – and working on the house is always a fun glimpse into the past, while trying to create a more comfortable home that does its history justice. In typical Cain fashion, I digress…
Yeah, you read that correctly – consistent blogging hasn’t been my forte for the past few months. Life got in the way, which I guess is the point of the sabbatical. In fact, I suppose you could say that the sabbatical has been my forte for the past few months.
So because headers make the post look cool…
When last I left you, I had slipped into a pretty deep sabbatical lifestyle. Rest and relaxation to the max. #hammocklife #rosélife #beachlife etc…
Somewhere around week 3, I relapsed. A quick Slack message to BiskoPop and an issue reported. Just like that. Then another. Old habits. I felt pretty bad afterwards. To be fair, they were just bugs from using the product, so I justified it as being a good OSS Citizen, but if the point was to distance myself from work, I was failing, and it was surprisingly easy to fail.
So I distanced myself from the computer. I gave up on weekly updates and only signed in to share pictures of Orvis or to update my sabbatical count. I biked a little, ran some more, and went to the beach with Orvis and Meredith almost every day for a couple of weeks. I threw myself into renovation plans, and then I threw myself into the renovation.
Meredith’s stepfather, Ed, came down in August, and for a week we worked at a crazy pace from 6am to 9pm every day. Ed is a 63 year-old construction machine, made of iron, and requiring little to no fuel or rest. I am a 31 year-old web developer, soft and pudgy, and requiring 3 square meals a day (not including snacks) and 8+ hours of sleep a night (not including naps). The generational divide was clear, but thanks to a shared love for 4 hour history podcasts and singing Jimmy Buffet lyrics off-key, we managed to knock out a huge chunk of work without knocking out each other. We tore out the plaster and lath ceiling in our living room to match my office project from a few years ago, opened up a doorway, removed the wall between our old laundry room and dining room, and installed a nice large window in our newly minted breakfast nook. After a week, Ed returned to “real work” on the farm and I returned to a more manageable “Cain pace” to finish plastering the beams, doing the trim work, and building a new bar cabinet in place of an abandoned stairway… the project still isn’t done.
Peppered in between house work, I managed to squeeze in so much more sabbatical living. Meredith, Orvis, and I took our annual trip to Vermont, and then tacked on trips to midcoast Maine and Canada (a first for both Orvis and Meredith). We resumed our almost-daily beach trips, and my dad came to visit for a week of fishing – where in typical Cain fashion, we caught very little, but had an absolute blast doing it.
I blinked, and it was over.
I honestly don’t know where to begin. I guess the easiest is with a big thank you to Automattic.
Thank you, Automattic. Me
It is impossible to overstate how great of a perk the sabbatical is. For those of us not blessed with independent wealth, or that modern-day vagrant, #live[something catchy like ‘youradventure’, ‘authentic’, ‘free’, etc…] lifestyle of not caring, three months away from work, yet still having the ability to pay your bills, is a concept that’s hard to wrap your mind around.
Before my sabbatical, I had dreams of doing something inspirational book-worthy, like spending a month each in 3 different jobs – far from a computer screen – to “find my true calling”. I’m not knocking it, I just didn’t do it. When it came time to step away, I realized that what I wanted to do more than anything was to just relax, build something with my hands, and spend time with those that make me smile most. I did exactly that, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Orvis is getting old, and it’s a good possibility that he won’t be around for my next sabbatical. The time I spent on trails or at the beach, making memories with him and Meredith, is simply priceless. The days I spent with my father, standing in water up to our waists, watching fish laugh at with us, are days that I’ll never forget. I remembered that I can build things without code, and I can read things that aren’t on a screen. I slowed down on my walks, sped up on my runs, sat in the sun, and smiled. And I realized something…
There’s not a single thing stopping me from doing any of this every day of my life.
My biggest sabbatical takeaway is that I don’t need a sabbatical to take advantage of the things that are around me. I already take walks with Orvis – why not wake up a little earlier and head to a new trail? Maybe instead of rushing through lunch with Meredith to get back to Slack, I’ll take a minute to just sit and talk afterwards. I can think of more fishing holes within a 2 hour drive than I can reasonably fish in a season – if I spend a little less time on Facebook or [insert your distraction here] on Monday-Thursday, what’s stopping me from being in the water on Friday?
I’m not trying to trivialize work or the responsibilities of life, and I may be just burning bytes while waxing poetic, but if memories are the fruit of my time off, I should be doing everything I can to grow those memory trees in the time between.
I do see the irony in a 1,000-word post about creating less distractions, so this might be my last novella for a little while. I really just wanted a shortlink to share every time someone asks me what I did for my sabbatical for the next few days. So I’ll wrap it up with one more big thank you.
Thank you to Automattic for giving me this perk and the work/life balance to live it in the 5 years in between, to Matt for doing things differently enough to make it all possible, to my team for picking up even more of my slack while I was gone, to Meredith and Orvis for putting up with the #livesabbatical version of myself that didn’t shave or bathe and day-drank for 3 months, and to my friends and family that made so much of my sabbatical so very awesome – you know who you are (no, not you, Takashi).
I was going through an old hard drive from years ago, and found a screenshot of this that a much younger and immature Cain had saved.
That’s the beauty of the sun, it does the moving for you.
Me, working on my tan line
Well, I’ve fully embraced the funemployed lifestyle. Late breakfasts, books in bed, boozy lunches, days spent on the beach, boozy dinners… I think I used to do something on the internet, with lines of code, but all of that is but a distant memory now. I think I used to have a sabbatical to-do list, with constructive items, but that seems like an impossibility from this sweet hammock.
I’ve been horrible about getting things done this week, but excellent about getting nothing done this week. I crushed my sabbatical count – upped my runs in preparation for the Beach to Beacon, added my first completed book to the list, and stacked up an impressive number of beach trips with Orvis and Meredith. However, I noticed from my hammock yesterday that the grass is getting tall, the weeds are creeping in, and that renovation project still isn’t even pretending to inch toward the finish line.
The anxiety I was feeling is largely gone. I still catch myself checking my work email by accident in the morning or glancing at notifications while blogging, but I’ve kicked the Slack habit with a vengeance. Although now I’m worried I won’t be able to get back into the swing of things at the end of all of this… at least I’ll have 78 full nights of sleep between now and then.
In the spirit of full disclosure, this was really just a reset week. I think if I’d continue on like this without doing anything constructive, I’d slowly drive myself mad (and quickly drive Meredith mad). I really just wanted a week to try to forget work and remember how to read things on paper. I’m feeling happy – last week, we had an awesome family lunch (Orvis included) at Eventide, and even though we ultimately got caught in an afternoon downpour, there was nothing but laughter as the sabbatical me fully embraced the sabbatical life.
Let’s just go ahead and acknowledge that most of this post will be a thinly-veiled brag about an absurd amount of time off, so take it with a grain of salt. Automatticians that have been with the company for 5 years get to take a 3-month, paid sabbatical. It’s an unbelievably awesome perk, and I started mine on July 10. Get over your jealousy and apply already – we’re hiring.
That being said, as someone who spends almost the entirety of every business day working on a web publishing platform – I figured that the best way to escape from work for 3 months would be to blog about it. Here goes something.
A few months back, I remember reading a co-worker’s post about the anxiety of taking an extended leave and thinking “wow, I’m so lucky that I don’t have the personality type to get worked up about things like this.”
I woke up at least 4 nights this week at 3am with some pretty intense anxiety.
Did I forget to do something before I left? Will my team fail their sprint without me? Am I missing big, company-wide decisions? Am I really such a non-integral part of the day-to-day workings of Automattic? Will my job be there in 3 months? Can Takashi or Obenland possibly get through a full day without talking to me?!?
Answers: Most definitely. Nope (I peaked) – awesome job, guys! Probably. Absolutely. Hopefully? Definitely not – losers.
It’s still early, and I assume that most of the jitters will be gone after a week or two, but having worked in some capacity almost every day of my adult life, trust me when I say that there is something legitimately unsettling when faced with the actuality that you’re about to go 3 months without work. It is almost impossible for me to not check my work email in the fogginess of waking up each morning, and I had to delete Slack from my phone to stop myself from looking at it whenever Meredith turned her back.
If I’m coming to terms with my own superficial existence, I might as well get some shit done in the meantime. Last week, Meredith and I sat down and made a pretty epic list of possible things to do to fill the voids of time between waking at noon, hammock napping at 3pm, and drifting to sleep after dinner at 7pm.
The list is full of house projects (like finishing that bathroom renovation from 3 months 6 months ago) and personal projects (New Year’s resolution-style stuff to feel guilty about ignoring in a few weeks), and after looking at it, I feel comfort in knowing that there are plenty of things to fill my time. This past week alone, I painted large chunks of the house, mulched and weeded the flower beds like the very best of retirees, and then spent just about every minute of my remaining free time with Orvis and Meredith (on walks and at the beach), reading (currently A Man Called Ove, next Boys on the Boat), running (more like shuffling my feet and breathing hard), or riding my bike (did I mention that I got a bike?).
I even created a handy “Sabbatical Count” widget in the sidebar (using that fancy new core MCE text widget) to rub all of my accomplishments in your faces (all 4 of you reading this).
The sub-headings are unnecessary – they just scratch my organizational itch and break this really long post into visual chunks… I should try pictures next time.
About the sabbatical? We’ll see how it goes. It’s too late to take it back now, and I think Meredith actually enjoys seeing things getting done around the house – who would’ve guessed? I’ll try to do a weekly update so that Leif and Marek can fill their free time with my literary voice, and maybe by next week I’ll be a completely changed person who has discovered the secret to life and found an inner balance.