Instead of summer vacation, well-off overachievers are taking a creative hiatus

Carrie Seim
Trent Preszler, the chief executive of Bedell Cellars winery, hones the 18-foot-long wooden canoe he is building during a summer sabbatical, in Mattituck, N.Y., July 14, 2018. 
Emiliano Granado | The New York Times

Trent Preszler, the chief executive of Bedell Cellars winery on the North Fork of Long Island, won't spend his summer spotting penguins in the Galápagos or trekking through the Atacama Desert in Chile, as he has in years past. Instead, he is meticulously hand-crafting an 18-foot-long wooden canoe inspired by 19th-century Maine fur trappers.

Tamiko White, a bicoastal model, TV correspondent and fashion consultant, will forgo her annual holiday in Martha's Vineyard to write a book.

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And Reed Levine, a physician from Los Angeles, is self-training to be an amateur chef specializing in molecular gastronomy.

They're part of a wave of overachieving taskmasters who are taking a so-called creative hiatus this summer, rather than yet another status vacation to an exclusive hot spot. These roll-up-your-sleeves sabbaticals offer worldly go-getters a fresh laurel in their multi-hyphenate (and, not quite needless to mention, affluent) crowns.

"It's like my own luxury staycation, except at the end of it I'll have a boat," Mr. Preszler, 41, said.

It's also about unplugging and practicing mental self-care. "I've committed to vacations in the past and then was thinking about work the whole time and wasn't fully immersed in the experience," Mr. Preszler said. "But in my wood shop, there's a Zen-like quality to just focusing on one grand mission."

Not to mention envy-inducing results: a historically accurate sea vessel, a book or — in the case of Brad Biren, 34, an attorney, and his husband, Matthew Erpelding, 40, a composer and music teacher — a deluxe condominium for a carnivorous reptile.

Preszler is part of a wave of overachieving taskmasters who are taking a so-called creative hiatus this summer, rather than yet another status vacation to an exclusive hot spot. 
Emiliano Granado | The New York Times

Mr. Biren and Mr. Erpelding, who live in Des Moines, have traveled the globe. But this summer they're grounding themselves to construct "the Rolls-Royce of enclosures" (as Mr. Biren puts it) for their beloved 20-pound monitor lizard, Vera, complete with a heated pool and basking area.

"We're not seeing the Grand Canyon, but we are constantly taking trips to Lowe's and Home Depot," Mr. Biren said. "This is way less stressful than going through an Italian airport. It's much more bonding. And there's something meditative about sticking a paintbrush in a can of eco-friendly epoxy and brushing it back and forth."

The men, who call themselves "the last thing from woodworkers," see the project as an opportunity for personal growth. "What better way to reinvest in yourself than by using power tools?" Mr. Biren said.

Such undertakings also offer the ultimate escape fantasy: a chance to slip the surly bonds of social obligations for the entire summer, guilt free.

When friends invite Mr. Preszler to drinks or weekends away, he zips off a quick reply: "I'm building a canoe. I'll see you in August!" He occasionally gets pushback from friends who deduce from his Instagram account that he's in town and, presumably, ready to rosé. "I tell them to pretend I'm on vacation."

"We have so many social pressures to be seen and be available 24/7," he said. "There's a strong self-care aspect to being able to say, 'I'm making this boat my priority because it brings me happiness and contentment.' It feels liberating."

The freedom to forgo social commitments also appealed to Sara Lieberman, 39, a travel and lifestyle writer in Paris who returned to New York City this summer to burrow herself in a new venture: Cup o' Cockles, an urban clam shack at the Smorgasburg market in Brooklyn.

"I have a hard time saying no, because I don't like disappointing people or myself," she said. "FOMO is real, so it's nice to have a legitimate excuse. Everyone knows I'm working on this big project, completely out of my territory, and I really do have to put everything into it."

Inside the $42.5 million beachfront mansion on Nantucket that has $2.5 million of smart home technology
Inside the $42.5 million beachfront mansion on Nantucket that has $2.5 million of smart home technology

That sort of all-encompassing endeavor offers deeper meaning for those eager to test themselves beyond another zip-line course or desert safari.

"Even though this project scares me to death, I crave the kind of craziness that comes with trying something new," Ms. Lieberman said. "And what I'll have to show for it is more rewarding than any vacation photo or shot of me on a waterfall somewhere. This is something I'm building myself."

But these self-imposed summer exiles — call them the humblebrag of staycations — are not without their perils.

"You have to be O.K. when you go on Instagram and everyone's at the Vineyard or the beach or the new Soho House in Dumbo, and you have to stay in and be disciplined," said Ms. White, 47, the bicoastal model who is writing a book on fashion careers this summer.

"I really want to go to the Hamptons with my friends today, for instance, but I'm empowered enough to make the choice to stay and write in Red Hook," she said. "There's more value in being able to say I'm a published author. I'm like a child. I tell myself I can go on vacation next summer."

Not that all creative hiatuses are isolating. Dr. Levine, 40, is a Los Angeles physician who specializes in pain medicine and neurology. But for the next six weeks, his focus is on a 12-course modernist feast that he is fastidiously devising, timetabling and sous-viding for 20 friends (think Parmesan ice cream scooped into prosciutto cones, soups served in edible potato bowls, and a Lilliputian steak dinner).

Dr. Levine has even recruited his husband, Joe Miale, 40, a writer and director, and a friend, Asher Hung, 45, into his summer endeavor. "It turns out a culinary adventure is better than a vacation," said Mr. Miale, who is consulting on the menu. "It's more engaging for us as a couple. People travel to look for adventure out in the world, but this is making our home a place of gathering and a place of curiosity."

5 of the best travel rewards credit cards for young people
5 of the best travel rewards credit cards for young people

Alexander and Rebecca Lowry, who live in Hamilton, Mass., just outside of Boston, are also in the throes of a big domestic project. In lieu of summer travel or hanging on the beach with friends, they're tackling a major renovation of their four-bedroom 1964 garrison colonial house.

"My wife and I were just talking about our honeymoon and that sort of trip-of-a-lifetime story we have," said Mr. Lowry, 41, who recently left his job at J.P. Morgan's philanthropy unit in New York to become a professor of finance at Gordon College. "But it's great to have different types of stories. Now we'll be able to say, 'Do you remember when we renovated the house that summer?'"

The couple plans to complete their fixer-upper furlough by Labor Day. "Instead of vacation photos, we'll have before-and-after house photos," Mr. Lowry said of the project, which he acknowledged is completely outside their wheelhouse. "But," he added, "you don't grow in your comfort zone."

Indeed, for some, the siren song of a challenging sabbatical is habit forming.

"I've always wanted a wood-fired Finnish steam sauna in my backyard, so maybe I'll build that for next summer's creative hiatus," Mr. Preszler said. "I mean, why not?"

This article was originally published in the New York Times.

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