Published in Macalester Today
A sabbatical is intended as a time for restoration and reflection. Ideally, one should return from this interregnum with a new and richer understanding of oneself and one’s relation to the world. A suntan is a nice addition but less essential.
For me, this period of sustained tranquility has been unprecedented. My only other sabbatical occurred 22 years ago, when my wife Carol was working six or seven days a week and my older son, Adam, was a year old: the list of things on the agenda at that time did not include much solitude and self-scrutiny. I wrote most of a book on Dickens, changed many diapers, and pretty much never left Erie, Pennsylvania—not my first choice of a place to spend free time.
I am of course keenly aware that most people in most professions work their entire lives without having a sabbatical (helpfully reminded, from time to time, by my spouse). I feel most fortunate to have had this gift of freedom. I wish our society embraced the understanding that we would collectively be healthier and more productive if more people were granted a similar gift. Many Europeans, for instance, seem to regularly incorporate a sabbatical into their working lives. They call it “August.” And yes, they do seem to undermine the notion that sabbaticals and productivity are directly correlated, but I am convinced nonetheless that there can be a happy middle ground between the American—particularly the male American— pride in working to exhaustion and the Italian custom of the three-hour lunch.
Here are some things I learned during the past few months.
My friend Judith Shapiro, retired president of Barnard College, has said if you’re going to spend the rest of your life inside your own head, you’d better make sure it’s an interesting place to be. I learned that my head, gray and balding as it is, is not uninteresting, at least to its owner. I spent surprisingly little time between September and mid-December thinking about Macalester, I paid almost no attention to the news, and I was just fine. Better than fine, actually: I was relaxed, curious about the things around me, and more focused than ever before on the present rather than the past or future.
I learned that one of life’s hidden pleasures is driving long distances through beautiful and relatively isolated places with no need to be anywhere for an appointment. It helps if one is driving a car that can go really fast, but any reasonably reliable vehicle will do. California is by far the most populous state in the nation, but it is also huge, and I managed at times to drive 20 or 30 miles through heavily wooded hills without passing another vehicle.
I explored every possible route between the town of Sonoma and the Pacific coast, driving long stretches of that coastline on roads that seemed designed by an imaginative child playing with Legos. I listened to all my favorite music from college. I stopped for coffee in Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Birds and where, this being America, there is a Birds Café and a life-sized replica of Hitchcock outside a grocery store. I found a bakery and a cheese shop in Freestone (population 50) that rival anything in New York. (Another highlight of Freestone is its famous Osmosis Spa, specializing in the Cedar Enzyme Bath. I did not indulge.)
I also learned that another of life’s pleasures is not driving in Italy. As my friend and guide Guido Fratini says of his homeland, “One country, one highway.” Every other road is narrow, winding, and pretty much unnamed. Throw in a traffic circle every 50 meters, the inability to connect with GPS, hundreds of crazed motorcyclists outfitted like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2, and the occasional cinghiale (wild boar) wandering across the pavement, and you have a recipe for mayhem. But the views: magnificent.
I learned to admire the craftspeople of the world, particularly those who produce with dedication, passion, and honesty the things we eat and drink. I listened to people who make cheese and chocolate and wine—how’s that for a nutritional pyramid?—and was struck by the almost spiritual seriousness with which they approach their labor. Those of us who work chiefly at desks tend to underestimate the difficulty and the beauty of transforming a giant pod into a piece of chocolate that improves a bad day or grapes into a wine that lingers in the memory for years. The people who do this at the highest level are both gifted and smart.
The winemakers, unsurprisingly, captured my imagination with special force. There’s Michele Satta, making brilliant wines in Bolgheri, who likens his role to that of an orchestral conductor. “Same music, same musicians, different conductors, different sound. Same grapes, same land, different makers, different taste.” Hard to argue. Steve Law, from Edinburgh, worked as an electronics engineer for Hewlett Packard before quitting to make cool-climate, French-style Syrah in Sonoma. (I tried to convince him to change the name of his wine, Maclaren, to Macalester, but learned that clan members, unlike baseball players, cannot become free agents.) Doug and Lee Nalle have been making Zinfandel, some from pre-Prohibition vines, in the same refined style for 30 years, regardless of changing markets or fashions. If not for the fact that I don’t like to get dirty, hate bugs, am impatient, and prefer to live within walking distance of a good latté, I could see myself doing this stuff.
One of the skills I have honed during my decade as a college president is what might be called “shmoozeability”: the capacity to be at ease when conversing with new acquaintances and to ask questions that encourage them to talk about their interests. I learned that this skill is transferable to other settings and makes traveling considerably more enjoyable and instructive. My father was a master at this, and his endless string of conversations with total strangers used to embarrass me. Now I know what he was up to and why he returned from every vacation with new friends.
I learned that the physical effects of stress are enormous. I knew this on an intellectual level, of course, but there is no substitute for learning through experience. Put another way, removing the stress made me feel a whole lot better. Evidently some people can achieve this through meditation, yoga, and the philosophy known in technical terms as “not giving a shit.” I seem to lack this ability; to be relaxed I require the actual cause of the stress to be removed. Oh well.
I learned, or was helpfully reminded, of the truth that there remains a BR separate and distinct from PBR. It is not the case that my presidential persona is in any way inauthentic; like Popeye the Sailor, I am what I am. Rather, the picture of me as President of Macalester is only a partial representation: not photo-shopped, but cropped. After a decade of inhabiting an all-consuming role, I began to wonder if all the non-presidential sides of my personality had been consumed. I have been reassured that this is not the case. For better or worse, and with all its flaws, the essential me remains. Finally, and most importantly, I learned that the most complex, nuanced, and interesting California Pinot Noirs come from coastal vineyards, though they require the maturity that comes with age to reach their full potential. This is a lesson we should all remember.