I took a vacation (from my inbox)

This year I was determined to take a summer vacation in a big way. I would check out from work without checking in.

Taking a cue from Stanford law professor and cyber-celebrity Lawrence Lessig, I pledged to steer clear of my e-mail inbox while reconnecting with my extended family in the woods of Wisconsin.

Now I'm back in at work buried in e-mail, forgotten promises, demands from editors for scintillating columns and critiques from readers of columns that ran while I was lounging and swatting mosquitoes in the land of milk and bratwurst.

I'm paying now for my “no e-mail on vacation” pledge. But it was so worth it.

Full disclosure: I peeked at my inbox once or twice. But mostly I held firm, inspired by Lessig's practice of going e-mail-less for one month a year.

And you know what? The world didn't end. The newspaper published without me. Colleagues welcomed me back with no apparent hard feelings over my slow response to e-mail that must have seemed very important at the time.

Since my return, I've scanned the first few lines of the e-mails that I let pile up. Two-thirds of it is junk. The rest ranges from interesting to marginally so.

Was there anything in there that I was sorry I missed? Well, yes. A co-worker, a gem of a journalist, a genuine character and a frequent help to me, sent a note that he was leaving the newspaper after 31 years. I will miss him.

Still, the better question is: What would I have missed if I'd been reading e-mail instead of reveling in the lives of my seven brothers and sisters and my mother and father, both in their 80s?

What would I have missed if my eyes were fixed on a screen instead of flashing from scene to scene in a soaring log lodge where my folks and siblings and my siblings' spouses and kids and my own wife and wonderful daughters spent a week talking, laughing, eating, reading, remembering?

While I wasn't managing my inbox, there was the late-night session with my dad when we solved the airline industry's problems and the problems in the newspaper business, and debated the outcome of the presidential election.

While my unread e-mail was piling up, I made my first trip to a water park. I whooshed and whirled in the wetness of towering water slides, listening to my daughters' ecstatic giggles and screams.

Without e-mail, you listen to your own voice. If relaxing in a boat on a lake with people you love feels the same to you with or without night crawlers then so what if you forgot the bait?

Away from e-mail your thoughts are not interrupted by the voices of others – voices saying you might want to consider this, or did you take care of that task or why don't you ever answer my e-mails.

Away from e-mail your heart and mind place their own urgent stamps on the day's events. Your priorities become stunningly clear. You remember what's important.

It is why you go on vacation. It is worth it – abundantly so.

Mike Cassidy is a technology columnist for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News.