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Back in the Vacation Fold

Itís always mildly depressing to suddenly realize that for years youíve been caught up in something that you always shake your head sadly at other people for doing (or not doing, in this case). At some point in the preparation for my recent vacationóa week of camping in the AdirondacksóI realized this was going to be my first real vacation since 1999, and only my third since graduating college.

Though you would think I would have noticed that it had been almost five years, this stark fact was actually surprising to me. I donít consider myself a workaholic, at least not the kind who would openly defend things like not taking vacations. Iím the sort who tries to keep my occasional late nights and occasional late mornings in a rough balance, and I tend to believe pretty strongly that the Europeans have got the right idea over us insane Americans; here two weeksí paid vacation per year is considered acceptable, nay even luxurious.

I find it strange to admit that it seems, somewhere along the line, albeit unconsciously, I must have been infected with the American insanity about work (ďIíd rather have the extra paycheck and no time to spend itĒ).

Suddenly discovering my collusion in this insane system has added a little punch to the recommendations of people like former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who has been saying for a few years now that we should mandate four weeks of paid vacation a year (current average: two. Current mandatory minimum: Ha, ha, trick question), and the authors of books like The Importance of Being Lazy and In Praise of Slowness. I havenít read these books, though I expect I would agree with much of what they say. Iím not sure I will read them. It kind of feels like reading books about exercise. I imagine they have a use for people who still believe that 12-hour work days are a reasonable thing and that itís no problem to have kids who donít quite recognize their faces.

For the rest of us, I donít think we need convincing so much as a good shake and a recommendation of a cheap bed and breakfast. Much as I think itís mean not to pay people for their unused vacation time when they leave jobs, I almost think it would be a good idea if we didnít, to remove that monetary incentive to work ourselves into the ground.

In order to gird myself to recognize future vacation slippage, Iíve attempted to figure out where all my nonvacation time went. After all, I canít argue for four weeks if I donít know what I did with two or three. Hereís some of where I frittered it away: I used it to move from New Jersey to Brooklyn, and a year later from Brooklyn to upper Manhattan. I used it to keep the paychecks coming for a little while between jobs. I used it to travel to protests at the U.S. Armyís School of the Americas, and to stay in D.C. for a week after the IMF/World Bank protests in 2000 to wait for my friends to get out of jail. I used it on holiday trips to see family, a conference in a field I briefly thought I wanted to get a masterís degree in, and long weekends visiting friends, attending folk festivals, or checking out places in the Northeast where I might want to settle down when I fled the Big Apple. A lot of stuff, some of which I enjoyed, some of which was valuable to my sanity, and some of which I even may have called vacation at the time.

However, no offense to my friends and family whom I dearly love to visit, but having just had one, I can conclusively state that none of the above, including visiting with people, counts as a real vacation. Anytime where I have to spend a lot of time ďcatching upĒ (i.e., talking about the very things Iím trying to take a break from) doesnít achieve full breakdom, as precious as that time is. Any time with volunteer work, complex social-circle interactions, or the risk of arrest doesnít count either. To achieve the melting of the rocks in my shoulders and quieting of the tics in my brain it appears that I need a full-out departure from life as I know it.

My recent weekís vacation involved a lot of not knowing what time it was, going to bed when tired, rising when awake, eating when hungry, being quiet, breathing fresh air, watching birds, staring at streams, and having goofy, spur-of-the-moment adventures (and being rushed on the trail by an angry mother ruffed grouse, which doesnít count as relaxing, but was fun). We learned how far 13 miles is in the woods (too far to start in the afternoon), how big beavers are (a lot bigger than you think), and how quickly you can burn through a stump that didnít actually fit in the fireplace when you dragged it from another campsite (just a couple days), but other than that thereís really not a whole lot to tell. Thatís part of the glory of it. With the help of arriving home a full day before I had to go back to work, I didnít even feel like I needed a vacation from my vacation. Perhaps that, in the end, should be the real test of a real vacation.

óMiriam Axel-Lute
maxel-lute@metroland.net

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