Miércoles 8 de Agosto de 2007, Ip nº 202

Vacation, All I Never Wanted
Por Walter Kirn

First the provocative statistic, then a discussion of how it has been interpreted and then my own reflections on the topic, The Decline of the American Summer Vacation, an already-much-scrutinized phenomenon that accounts, as it happens, for my need to write this article efficiently and swiftly. Like the roughly 50 percent of working Americans who won’t take warm-weather getaways this year (and the 46 percent of those who will take holidays but will stick by the pool instead of surfing the breakers so they can use their BlackBerrys and laptops), I’m scarily overtired and need to crash soon.

So I’m pleased I’ve already dispensed with the statistics and am free to sweep on through the conventional wisdom about their possible meanings.

Simplified a bit, it runs as follows: a nation of remarkably productive, often well-paid workers who are becoming increasingly reluctant to pause from their labors and refresh their souls — a nation whose cash-drenched corporate employers typically don’t pay for much time off (less than two weeks annually, on average), a nation whose globe-gripping federal government is the only one in the whole industrialized world not to legally require generous periods of paid kick-back-and-hang time — is a nation that’s socially screwed up, particularly in comparison with European countries like France, which orders its citizens outside to play for the entire month of August and a few other weeks spread through the year.

The most widely cited diagnoses of our allegedly harmful undervacationing can be found by searching the Internet, the same Internet that even the dwindling number of full-vacation-takers are purportedly using to elevate their stress levels by logging on from beach resorts and national parks — where, according to concerned observers, they would be better off restricting themselves to restorative, out-of-cellphone-range pursuits like brisk morning swims and sunset nature walks. That fewer of us are doing so, it’s said, is a symptom of either anxious overcompetiveness (while I’m learning to fly-fish, that new guy down the hall is learning how to do my job); upward-mobility addiction (the cost of a 10-day Alaskan eco-trek is a down payment on a Lexus coupe!); the breakdown of the family (toasting s’mores for bored brats around a campfire is not a father’s duty anymore); or, perhaps, a complicated bitterness over the fact that surpassing France’s economy will never help us surpass its egotisms, so why bother aping the gourmet loafing that even most Frenchmen must sense has made them poorer? Why else would such slackers elect a hard-boiled president who ran as the champion of “the France that wakes up early”?

For me, the strongest of these notions is that it’s hard to take time off if it means lying sleepless in your hammock, picturing some whiz-kid “Art of War” type assuming your duties back at headquarters. The other observations about our mounting aversion (except for the France riff, which I just stuck in there) strike me as Friday-afternoon say-something jobs by lifestyle journalists desperate to beat traffic and head off to their lakeside second homes — the ones with the outdoor saunas and basement Pilates rooms whose four-star amenities might help explain why even lifestyle journalists take fewer vacations these days. And why their double-mortgaged readers do the same.

Grasping the truth about why more Americans are taking holidays from their vacations is as easy as stepping outside your workplace (the lushest of which tempt employees to stay inside by offering lap pools, massage rooms and the like) and seeing that the recuperative promises of the old-style extended getaway — the cleansing, amusing, soothing, stamina-raising therapeutic interludes that Eleanor Roosevelt once touted as a way for Americans “to build up health and resistance” — are redeemable everywhere, in every form and so close by that it’s a wonder thousand-mile drives in gear-packed station wagons still take place at all.

Add a new verse, Woody Guthrie. This land is leisure land. Strip-mall day spas. Corner yoga studios. Suburban mega-gyms. Wholeness and Recovery Camps. And don’t just behold, but gape upon and shiver at the colossal gaming-dining-bowling-Omnimaxing ultra-plexes whose honeycombed, multiplanar interiors evoke the vast convolutions of Utah canyons or the seemingly exitless great basilicas and which produce in me an awe that I felt coerced into experiencing during a boyhood trip to a billboard-hyped cavern in South Dakota, but didn’t experience and had to fake so my dad wouldn’t sulk and neglect to buy me ice cream.

Before I fall off my desk chair from exhaustion (the price of being a die-hard who did take several weeks off this summer, thus dooming myself on my return to finishing a month’s work in a few days), I’ll conclude with a personal reflection and a bit of historical trivia. The duffel-bag-lugging vacations of my youth — the kind that are losing popularity now in part because of the day-spa, lake-house ways of some of the melancholic high-caste Francophiles who discern in the trend a spiritual uptightness — always struck me as forced, unnatural, compulsory. Did people take long vacations out of instinct, to quench an urgent appetite, or had vacations been consciously devised by some overbearing master-protector figure rather like my dad? The answer is that the ritual arose, to a substantial degree, from a decree. I was right, it turns out, so astonishingly right that rather than explaining what I have learned, I’d prefer to let the reader discover it for himself, and shudder. Type the phrase “Strength Through Joy” into a search engine, even if you’re on a trip right now. Hint: The motto, as its utopian terseness instantly leads you to suspect, is a translation from the German. Another hint: Lederhosen. Conclusion: Invigoration-through-vacationing is not the expression of some bursting life force but, in large part, a Triumph of the Will.

  05/08/2007. The New York Times.


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