The Seattle Times' Danny Westneat is a gem of a columnist, and he proved it this week by pulling off that old summer trick of turning his time off into a column.
I mean, you have to use the material you have, right? When you write about yourself and where you live, everything is fodder, even an outing to Shi Shi Beach. I've done the same, more than once, and plan to do it again in a couple of weeks. My former colleague Frank Wetzel, editor of the old Eastside Journal-American, wrote almost every column about his summer place on Hood Canal.
A columnist never sleeps, even on vacation, paid or otherwise.
When you write a twice-weekly (or more) column, you have to feed the beast. Writing, as they say, is easy. All you have to do is stare at a blank screen until little drops of blood form on your forehead. Danny is better than most at getting those drops to form.
But while he was writing, he wasn't doing his fellow columnists any favors. Because the subject of his piece was that his vacation was in fact unpaid time. Seattle, the state of Washington, even the Seattle Times are dealing with budget holes by furloughing employees, sending them home without pay while still expecting to get full productivity out of them.
Danny discovered that the unpaid time off wasn't so bad. He writes: "(O)n a personal level, the furlough gives me pause. I had to exchange money for time. I was miffed, then anxious because I didn't think I could afford it. It ended up making me happy."
I fully agree tough times call for desperate measures, but Danny, did you have to let the big secret out? Did you have to admit that it's much more fun to do other stuff than sit down and write? Did you have to suggest writing for less pay has an upside? Cost-cutting publishers don't don't need more ammo.
I know Danny and admire his work and his different drummer heartbeat. I remember him in the good old hard-work days when he decided not to continue on the KUOW Friday media panel because he was too busy. Now, he's spending time hiking on the coast.
Danny's revelation that some extra time off is good, money or no money, is hardly news. Like most of life's pleasures, the French figured it out first. And the mossback pioneers of Puget Sound figured it out too. Remember the "The Old Settler" song: "No longer the slave of ambition/I laugh at the world and its shams/As I think of my pleasant condition/surrounded by acres of clams."
We understand slacking here, and I approve of it wholeheartedly.
But I also approve of keeping it quiet, of not encouraging employers to sign you up at slacker-scale wages. Because the fact is, for a columnist, time off is often the most productive. Restoring and recharging your brain is necessary for a columnist. You've got to let the well refill once in awhile.
The beauty part about writing is, you're "working" hardest when you're not working.
If there were justice for columnists, instead of a furlough, we'd get overtime for time off.
I'm composing the memo now for my boss, who of all people should understand this. When Crosscut's David Brewster ran Seattle Weekly, all employees got Fridays off in August. Paid. We called them Brewster days. It was an attempt to Frenchify us a bit, give us time to hang out in cafes. As a perk, it was magnifique.
Vacations produce good columns. Danny just proved that.