Before the falls: In praise of the vacation

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January 2, 2012
By: chuck terhark
chuck terhark
The hibernating RV is a common site in the back alleys of Northeast Minneapolis, as it is in nearly every neighborhood in America, particularly the snowy northern half. Doors locked, tires chocked, hulls swaddled in tarps, these lovely beasts sleep soundly through the winter, out of sight behind garages, their promises of escape and adventure and freedom and boundlessness muffled for the time being.

More and more they are ornamented with “For Sale” signs, because times and wallets are tight these days, and toys and vacations are unaffordable luxuries. Or so the thinking goes.

One RV just down the alley from my house is different. It isn’t one of those aluminum boxes that appear rusted into place that you see too often. It is sleek and white and clean, with shaded windows and all manner of accoutrements tethered to its body: kayaks, a satellite dish, many storage containers, a motorcycle and a pair of those awful plastic testicles that truck guys hang from their bumpers to make their vehicles resemble over-hormonal steer. But mostly this RV is different because it is often gone. All throughout the year, even in winter, it appears for weeks at a time and then disappears again, stoking in we more sedentary neighbors a burning, curious envy.

It’s unpopular in times of high unemployment rates, reduced assistance to those unemployed, and all the rest of the frightening statistics whose shadow we toil under, to covet thy neighbor’s life of leisure. It’s hard, in hard times, to feel deserving of some time off. It’s much easier to believe that the antidote to an underworked society is to overwork ourselves. Nobody wants to be thought of as lazy, particularly during a recession; better to fall back into the comfortable stereotype of American industriousness. But that may be precisely the wrong attitude.

According to John de Graaf, director of the group Take Back Your Time and co-author of the new book “What’s the Economy For, Anyway: Why It’s Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness,” Americans work more than nearly every other country in the world, with almost no benefit to our overall productivity. Since World War II we have increasingly prioritized money over free time, and today the U.S. labor force averages just one week of paid vacation, with many workers choosing not to use the vacation they’ve earned. We also watch the most television, along with the two other hardest-working nations (Japan and South Korea) — a depressing demonstration of the ways an exhausted populace tends to use what little free time it allows itself.

This work-less, play-more model is often attributed to the Europeans, and I’m sure many readers will point to the Eurozone’s current slide toward the economic brink as proof that it doesn’t work. But whatever the cause of the Europeans’ troubles, it isn’t their penchant for vacations. The American way hasn’t fared much better, after all, and there are countless studies showing that increased time away from work actually increases productivity.

If that’s surprising, it shouldn’t be. Time off rejuvenates the body and clears the mind, readying it for work. I’ve been thinking about vacations a lot lately, because this time last year I was in the midst of a grand one: Having recently left our jobs, my girlfriend and I purchased a 13-foot fiberglass camper-trailer — a Scamp, built right here in Minnesota — outfitted it with a solar electrical system, and hit the road for four months. It was an expensive vacation, and probably imprudent, and we’ve never once regretted it.

We afforded such an extravagance because we prioritized it — living thinly and saving everything for more than a year before embarking. It’s now a year later and I’m still running on the fumes of that trip, so full did it fill my tank. Should everyone take a four-month vacation? No, and of course not everyone can. But I believe we should try to portion ourselves enough free time that a four-month binge is unnecessary.

That’s what I’m trying to do now: The Scamp is hibernating, and we’re absconding to Mexico this week with some friends, to see the ocean and forget ourselves and momentarily trade in our responsibilities for a little perspective. It won’t be cheap, but neither will its rewards. “The sound of the sea is the most time-effacing sound there is,” wrote E.B. White. “The centuries reroll in a cloud and the earth become green again when you listen, with eyes shut, to the sea.”  

If you’re looking for a resolution here in the first days of 2012, you could do worse than this: Make your time your own. Tighten not only your wallet but also your grip on what really matters.

Chuck Terhark writes about life in Northeast for The Journal.