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Home and away

When I last wrote in this space, it was about how I was packing for a weeks-long business trip, trying to navigate the ever-changing rules on carry-on luggage. Looking back, deciding whether my hand cream met the three-ounce-or-less rule turns out to have been the easy part. Stepping out of my life for work for several weeks — that has proven to be much more complicated.

I know there are people who do this regularly. I am not one of them. While I do travel often, it is rarely for more than a night or two, and it has been more than eight years since I have been among the ranks of the marathon road warriors. My sons were 7 and 4 back then, and I spent two weeks in the Philippines, on a fairly remote island. As I left I made them a promise that I would call every night at bedtime. My memories of the next 14 days involve frantically searching for a phone.

This time around I was armed with better technology. For starters, I sent the boys off to school each morning via BlackBerry. I “texted” them to get them up. They texted back to confirm that their ride had arrived. I arranged an appointment for the dog at the vet while listening to testimony in an Irish courtroom. I paid bills on my laptop using the wireless connection in the hotel lobby. I used my cellphone to schedule a haircut right after I got back.

But if the lessons learned from the Philippines included “Don’t promise phone calls you can’t deliver,” the lessons learned in Dublin were a bit more complex. I expected, for instance, that the trip would prove me to be indispensable. After all, I had to leave a 12-page annotated guide to life for my family — a detailed schematic on who needed to be where at what time — before I could think of getting on a plane.

But while there were certainly some impressive stacks of mail for me to sort through when I came home, there were few other signs that I’d been gone. My husband had got to work every day. The boys had done their homework. The dog’s infection had cleared with antibiotics. Everyone was showered and fed. And I had to at least consider the possibility that maybe all the frantic juggling I do every day involves more heat than light.

Also unexpected were the feelings I carried back from abroad about my work. I had assumed that two weeks of isolated focus would leave me drained. In reality, while I was certainly tired (time differences can do that to you, particularly if you stay up past midnight every night, certain that your boys will need to call), I was also energised.

It has been years, I realise, since I immersed myself completely in work, rather than diving under for brief swims, then surfacing again. But for two weeks I had the time to luxuriate in the work (at least during the stretches when I was not on the BlackBerry or the laptop or the cellphone). This didn’t feel like drowning. Instead, I felt refreshed. The opposite, again, of what I had expected.

Even better was the effect this newfound immersion had back home. I sent daily e-mails about the work I was doing, the story that was unfolding day by day. My family wrote back, asking questions, adding thoughts. We rarely find the time to share like this when I am home.

Jeffrey Toobin, a reporter for The New Yorker, spent two years of his life travelling from his Manhattan home to a courtroom in Los Angeles during what he calls “the . J. festivities.” His son, Adam, went from 2 years old to 4 during that time, and when Jeff would start to pack at the end of a weekend for a return trip, Adam would say “No . J., Daddy.” I remember hearing that story when it happened, and I think that’s what I expected of my children, in slightly longer sentences, when I came home.

But Jeff tells another story, about his daughter, Ellen, who was two years older than her brother. Jeff took to inventing a new installment of a bedtime story every night as a way to keep in touch. “I have vivid memories of standing by the pay phones in the L.A. Criminal Courts Building talking about Pirate and his best friend, a deer,” he says. And those memories, he assures me, are good ones.

Work will take me back to Dublin soon, this time for about a week. I will still leave an annotated list. I will also keep sending back nightly installments of my own version of a pirate story. And then I will come home and stay for a very long time.

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