Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Epiphany In London

In the late seventies I became a management consultant, and with that decision, I began to travel frenetically. At the time I thought of consulting as a temporary job.

A lot has happened in the thirty years since, mostly good, but I never lost the feeling that it was just a temporary job. It certainly wasn’t a career. Don’t get me wrong. There have been many rewarding aspects to the work. I’ve seen the world on consulting assignments. Sometimes the money has been good. I’ve met some of the most interesting people on the planet on consulting projects.

Nonetheless, consulting requires travel away from home a minimum of five days a week, every week. Sometimes, like the recent gig I signed up for in London, you must commit to being away from home and family for a month.

Regular readers will know that early last week I flew to London for just that job, leaving my wife and two young kids behind. But the London project did not work out for me, and I’m back. Why I am back may be worth knowing to you if you travel constantly, as I have for three decades, especially if you have a family at home and care about them.

I arrived in London last Tuesday morning. By Wednesday morning I had not slept since Sunday night due to worry and concern over being away from my family exacerbated by jetlag. I suddenly became aware that I was excruciatingly unhappy.

Had I known that I would be so miserable being away from my family, I would never have accepted the gig, of course. In earlier years before my wife and I had children, I wouldn’t have given such an extended absence from home (27 days) a second thought.

Suffering from severe sleep deprivation, I discussed the situation with my lead colleague on Wednesday morning early. We both agreed that it would not work for him or for me, and it wasn’t best for the client. Though we had client intro and fact-gathering meetings scheduled last week, the analysis didn’t officially begin until Monday the 11th, and there was time to replace me.

I have always loved consulting work per se, and I still do. But suddenly I realized while sleepless in that London Hilton room that I just can’t be away from my kids for a month without going home.

I didn’t know how strongly I felt about that until I got to London and could not sleep. If you read my blog often, you will remember my post a couple of weeks ago entitled, “Dread.” The dread I felt was about more than subjecting myself again to being beat up in the travel system; it was especially about being away from my kids.

The consulting firm I’d contracted with also muddied the waters the week previous to my travels when they called me out of the blue with a second offer—and then suddenly withdrew it—to lead a consulting project for a new railroad client in Florida. When they offered it, I expressed my strong interest, citing my expertise in rail and deep experience with white collar reorganizations, which is that company’s issue.

I also emphasized my strong preference to remain in the United States so that I could be home every weekend with my family. The U.K. work was strictly business process mapping, and while I do have lots of that experience, so do many others. The rail/reorg experience combo, however, was a much different and rarer requirement. I therefore agreed to the London gig reluctantly, which I realize now—too late—didn't help matters.

I’m not making excuses or pleading for forgiveness. I made a commitment to go work in London for a month, and I backed out once I got there. The politest thing I can say about my action is that it was “inconvenient” that I experienced the epiphany once there, instead of before I left, that being with my kids is more important to me than being absent from them for a month.

It was certainly inconvenient for them to have to scramble for a sudden replacement, and it was an extremely costly decision for me, since the consulting firm will not now reimburse me for any of my substantial expenses to get there, to reside in London at a Hilton, and to get home.

Be that as it may, last week’s extraordinary experience is a life-changing turning point. I don’t want to be away from my family that long ever again. This is a revelation to me. It may seem obvious to others, but it wasn’t to me, until now.

I am completely at peace with my decision last week to come home. Even in immediate hindsight, I recognize that it was foolish of me to think I could be away that long. Old habits die hard. I thought I could do what I’d been doing for thirty years, and I can’t, not any more. Having my kids has changed everything.

A little background is in order to put this into sharper perspective: I took off about half of 2007 because I could afford it (for awhile). I wanted to see what life would be like at home every week. Honestly, I didn’t know.

I found the adjustment to being at home difficult at first last year. Though my wife and I have a strong bond, I frequently felt like a stranger in the house. Her frantic routines to balance her professional career as a research sociologist and our two kids’ school and extracurricular activities were constructed of the necessity to act as a single parent during the five days each week that I had been gone for years. Frankly, from Monday to Friday each week I was in the way and unappreciated for the first few months.

Gradually, my wife and I retooled child responsibilities such as after-school activities (soccer, basketball, swim team, piano lessons, Chinese lessons, etc.); meal preparation for breakfasts and dinners; doctor appointments and emergency response to child sickness; homework monitoring and assistance; and coaching the kids in their own daily chores (bed-making, garbage-emptying, table-setting, dishwashing, pet feeding and pet care, yard work, etc.). I took over the myriad of tiny but persistent headaches, like keeping the vehicles licensed, inspected, maintained and filled with fuel. Home repairs and upkeep also fell to me. And so on.

Over time my wife became far happier, and so did I! I found the rhythms of our new routines suited me, to my great surprise.

I have especially enjoyed the immense amount of time spent with both my kids. Our son is in the third grade (age 9), and our daughter starts Kindergarten in the fall (age 4). I love every minute I am with them! They fight to have me lie down with them each night and to talk before they drift off to sleep. Their sleep problems and behavior issues, while low-grade, have all but disappeared with me home. My wife is not over-stressed and grouchy any more; she is, instead, happy. Two weeks ago I was here when we taught our daughter to ride her bike without training wheels.

I’d been missing all these things, and many more, by being away all week, every week. But just exactly what I was missing was abstract to me until I stayed home and immersed myself in my family’s lives. I could justify being away, despite my own persistent stress and a nagging feeling that I was missing something important, because it wasn’t concrete for me until I became involved.

Why I didn’t see that the last six months of 2007 had changed me I don’t know. It seems obvious now.

Thus I should not have agreed to take the gig in London because of the long absence. I had become much more “normal” than I realized during my time at home last year, and it took a kick in the teeth like going to London and facing four weeks without them to come to grips with it.

Even though I will keep my hat in the consulting ring (for stateside travel only), I intend now, with the sharpened focus of my needs gained suddenly from the experience this week, to look hard for something interesting locally.

I’ve written often since I began this blog about my desire to stop flying so much, because the whole experience can be so difficult these days. Looking back on every post now, I can see my blog was borne of this need, and I am just reaching the point in my journey where the end may be in sight.

This blog’s header, lamenting how airlines routinely rob us of it, says, “Time is all we have… .” I finally grasped last week in London that I want to spend more of the time I have remaining on this rock with my family rather than alone in some hotel room. That knowledge was worth the price.


Blogger Bill said...

Well written and well understood. For 18 years, I worked in the "field" going away for sometimes months at a time.

Now, I am at home every night. Although I miss the travel and the points, I can actually afford to just pay for what I need. I was in London recently myself...but my wife was with me - and that makes all the difference in the world.

I wish you the best of luck in finding something local.

2/13/2008 3:35 PM  
Blogger Charlene Ann Baumbich said...

Poetic, refreshing, gut-punch honest (in a good way), inspiring and important. As an old hymn suggest, May your words reach the hidden depths of many a heart.

2/15/2008 10:10 AM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

Thanks, Bill and Charlene, for your words of support and understanding.

Though I don't know what I'll be doing yet with the rest of my life, I feel WONDERFUL! Like a heavy weight off my shoulders.

2/15/2008 10:29 AM  
Blogger TomCayman said...

My measure for years has been simple.

As an AA flyer :
- Platinum - good
- Black (Executive Platinum) - bad

Anytime I found myself hitting (or even nearing) Executive Platinum, I know I'm not at home enough during the year.

Mind you, it's a balancing act, as if I fall much below Platinum, I'm itching for at least some trips away :)

Anyway, I wish you the best in your post-epiphany period, and may you find the choices that make you, and your family, happiest !

2/15/2008 9:20 PM  
Blogger JimZ said...

I understand completely. A few years ago I was separated from Pfizer, and I took a job in the next state, without moving my family because my kids were still in high school. One day, after a few months of living away, I awoke to an epiphany, just as you did, and asked why am I putting myself through this. I have since simplified my life, got control of my needs, and realized what was really important. Best move I have ever made. Thanks for the interesting story.

2/17/2008 5:00 PM  
Blogger Vlamgat said...

Same experience except I was a banker with skin in every game that I traveled to play. For me it was the utter unreliability of the process; the knowledge that every time you planned a trip you needed to have a Plan B and even a Plan C. But as others have mentioned the down side now that I have given up this treadmill is no points and/or recognition when I have to do it. But I have also realized that these are just another way we compete with ourselves. Just maintaing that perpetual score card that is instilled from grade school. In the scheme of things, completely pointless as compared with kids. I am reaching the opinion that any double income professional family with a perpetual traveller is approaching an implicit child abuse definition.

2/20/2008 1:54 PM  

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