On Friday, I headed out around mid-afternoon to do a few quick errands. I’d barely started up the hill when I came face to face with the reminder that everything had changed: the flashing red lights of a school bus.
I was one of those weird kids who liked going back to school. I remember vividly how, a week after fourth grade ended, I was ready for the new school year. Even at nine, I didn’t quite see what all the summer fuss was about.
I recognize that for many people, this is bizarre, if not downright unAmerican. Somehow, summer is supposed to be the time for kicking back and relaxing, even if you don’t happen to be in school or have a job that runs along the same schedule as public schools. At the supermarket checkout, magazine headlines screech about summer fun, summer cookouts, summer vacations, summer picnics, summer entertainment, summer clothes, summer this, summer that, until I want to pull out my parka in protest. If the ads are to be believed, Americans spend their summers luxuriating on beaches or beside pools (even though much of the country has little or no access to either) or picnicking in large, laughing groups on lush patches of grass or at rustic picnic tables (assuming, of course, that one lives near (a) picnic spots, and (b) groups of people one actually enjoys spending time with rather than, say, high-maintenance relatives who specialize in passive-aggressive insults).
I don’t have children, but from what I understand, keeping school-age children occupied during summer vacation is a major chore even if the household includes a parent who can take time off on supposedly lazy summer days. Day camps, summer sports, children’s or youth theater, story time at the library—all sound delightful until you read between the lines and see the common thread: the child must be transported to and from each of these events. For some activities, like story time, it’s not enough to have drop-off and pick-up; the parent or other adult is often required to remain with the child for the duration, thereby obliterating any hope the parent might have had to run errands, return phone calls and emails, or draw a peaceful breath.
For those of us who work all year around, summer’s primary feature is often the fact that schedules must be adjusted around people’s vacations. We need an extension on this, because Felicity will be in Oregon visiting family; we can’t hold the meeting then, because Tim will be at the Cape that week. I can attest to the fact that court-ordered obligations don’t change simply because it’s summer: a group of us spent much of last week scrambling to address a deadline that slipped through the cracks because an attorney had the temerity to vacation in a place with poor internet access.
Still, we are told that we have all spent the summer relaxing, and fall is the time for gearing up and getting back to work. Fine with me: at long last, there’s a decent likelihood that when I call or email someone, I’ll be able to reach them. I’ll send drafts to colleagues for review, and I’ll receive an actual response instead of an out-of-office message that they’re on vacation for two weeks. People will be where they’re supposed to be, doing what they’re supposed to do. They’ll be able to provide real answers instead of shouting over the crashing waves, “Um, my mark-up is back at the office on my desk, but if you want to call my assistant Jessica, maybe she can find it,” even though we all know that Jessica isn’t going to be able to find anything, because she’s nowhere near the office because her daycare provider is also on vacation and her kids’ day camp ended last week and her husband is on a business trip, so Jessica is trying to work from home as best she can in between arranging play dates or whatever else she can scare up to keep the kids occupied for a couple hours at a time.
At this point, you’re probably thinking something like, “Maybe if you’d taken a vacation, you wouldn’t be so cranky about everybody else’s time off.” Actually, it isn’t that I resent people taking vacations. We all need a break. The problem is that as a society, we’ve tacitly agreed that everybody is going to take a week or two off during an eight-week period. That’s a lot of people on vacation in a short amount of time, especially when everything is supposed to be up and running.
Plus, while I didn’t go away for vacation, I did take a week off at the beginning of the summer. I also took off quiet little days here and there. These stealth mini-breaks have much to recommend them, not the least of which is that clients are less likely to panic if they don’t know I’m unavailable. Inevitably, as soon as I announce I’m taking a long weekend, clients pop up like a pimple the night before the prom, pleading for me to do “just this one quick thing” before I disappear for a day or two. (More often than not, the one quick thing is something that has been languishing on their desks for three weeks and is due on Monday.)
Of course, there’s an ever-growing contingent that elects not to take their vacations during the summer precisely because that’s when so many people do. Often, these people no longer have school-age children and so don’t need to plan around the tykes missing school; instead, they plan on other people’s children being in school. Traveling in the off-season offers significant advantages, like smaller crowds, shorter lines, and less expense, even though it may mean missing seasonal attractions like outdoor concerts. Regardless, because summer is mass vacation season, these discrete off-season travelers rarely cause much of a blip in the schedules of those who stay behind.
For the likes of me, Labor Day weekend signals a return to normalcy. We are no longer required to devote every sunshiny hour to fun and frolic; we can attend to chores and tasks without feeling as if we’re somehow missing out. Schedules that ran amok during the summer settle back into predictable patterns. Granted, there will always be unanticipated occurrences and emergencies, but for the most part, as we return to our regularly scheduled lives, we can finally relax once more into the comforts of routine.