Against Vacation

by Jason Peters on August 2, 2011 · 22 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Region & Place

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45th Parallel, Michigan

According to John McPhee, a former Commissioner of Land Reclamation by the name of Floyd Elgin Dominy believed every American had the right to an annual family vacation. And for Dominy, who was one of the sons of drought country, the best place for such a vacation was near a lake, preferably one created by a dam—a Floyd Elgin Dominy dam. (You can read about this in Encounters with the Archdruid, which to my way of thinking is one of McPhee’s best books.)

Let us consider a contrary view and begin with a definition. The family vacation: an unpleasant episode marked primarily by an accelerated production of waste, a careless and profligate use of money, and the unreasonable transporting of household crap from one location to another by means of the D.O.W. (That stands for “Despair on Wheels,” also known as the mini-van.)

I am “on vacation”; I know whereof I speak.

This is a time of high internal tension. I think a thoughtful man (where “thoughtful” does not mean “remembering important dates”) really dislikes himself while he’s “on vacation.”

Certainly a vacation consists, or should consist, of plenty of leisure, but while you’re at rest you can never quite fend off the nagging sense that you’re paying a price in the “satiety and aimlessness” of which John Crowe Ransom wrote.

There’s food on offer everywhere, but because there’s insufficient involvement in its production there is also no genuine enjoyment of it—no thorough-going enjoyment of it.

There’s no paucity of smiling children, or of aching muscles after you’ve rough-housed the kids and cousins in the lake or pool, but then you can almost see the seeds of greater expectations germinating in the soils of their little brains. The danger is that they’ll grow up to live for their two weeks’ worth of vacation each year and hate the other fifty. And that is no way to live a life.

In fine, there is the sense that you have fully arrived: at long last you are all consumer, endlessly provided for and endlessly entertained. But if, deep down, you have reconciled yourself to your condition, which is not to play but to work, you know that without work you cannot fully inhabit your humanity. Or: all play and no work makes daddy a dull boy.

At the heart of the high internal tension, the enduring and gnawing discomfort, is the loss of the normal alternate rhythm of work and rest, work and rest, that brings such immense satisfaction, variety, and joy and that is, in fact, the very stuff of life.

That the family vacation should take place somewhere else, that it should include a greater infusion of “nature” than everyday life provides, that it should be so utterly different from the daily routine–all this suggests how off-kilter, how out-of-round, how disorderly quotidian life has become for a great many people.

That is, the vacation, far from being a treatment for a serious illness, is instead a symptom of it.

I am fully aware that there are benefits of a “restorative” nature to “getting away,” and I wouldn’t willfully incur the wrath of any reader suspicious that I am criticizing him personally. I am not criticizing anyone at all (except perhaps myself).

I am trying, rather, to say something about what “getting away” means about the life we’re trying to get away from, and that something is that what we’re running from isn’t right. It isn’t well-made. Its true and rightful ends are not fully understood or realized or imagined.

I think I am luckier than most people inasmuch as my life involves not only a lot of leisure built into it but also a lot of time for both intellectual and manual labor. I have the variety and rhythm of which I spoke earlier and also the privilege of being fairly intentional about them. (“Intentional” is a bad word, but the satiety and aimlessness of vacation are messing with my vocabulary.)

But this isn’t the case with most Americans for whom Dominy wanted to secure an annual vacation. They were born into and inherited a world in which work doesn’t “participate in happiness,” to quote Ransom once again. It isn’t naturally coupled with rest or leisure. Work and rest are not paired together, like dance partners, but set at odds, like gunfighters. Life isn’t an art; it’s a duel. And it is just this adversarial arrangement I’m attempting to understand and to criticize. It’s the fight, not the gunfighters, I would call into question.

I’m waiting out a thunderstorm today, a storm that deprived Front Porcher Nancy-Boy Polet and me of a round of golf* at a man-eating course in northern Michigan known to swallow the weekend hacker whole. (We were going to play for bragging rights: the swing that most resembles an octopus trying to don a pair of panty-hose.) So, as everyone else here in this rented domicile is waiting out the storm in his or her way, I am doing what I would normally spend some time doing no matter where I am, and maybe later today I’ll finish reading the current book (a history of the Congo) and move on to the next (a Norman Maclean reader). For me, lucky devil that I am, work and rest are sometimes not two different things but the same thing.

And last night we salvaged an otherwise too leisurely and aimless day by building a wood fire in the grill with nothing more than small dead branches lying about the woods here and grilling six plump rainbow trout the kids caught the day prior. All this would have been ruined by a single waiter or someone else doing the cooking. There’s no substitute for being at work. And I wouldn’t have anyone else clearing my table of fish bones—not for all the trout in Schubert’s quintet.

___________

* Among the definitions of this infuriating pastime we have Twain’s famous “good walk spoiled,” Barfield’s lesser-known “whole ramshackle series of events,” and, for my money, Churchill’s “attempt to put a tiny ball into an even smaller hole with implements ill-suited to the purpose.” (Don’t quote me on these. There wasn’t room in the D.O.W for my library.)

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Matt McK August 2, 2011 at 11:48 pm

There’s a chapter in Josef Pieper’s anthology that beautiful dissects this topic. Wish I had my copy handy.

avatar Nathan August 3, 2011 at 12:55 pm

The most well reasoned argument for the ‘staycation’ I’ve ever read…I will force myself to reread everytime I’m planning another break from the office…

avatar Rob August 3, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Except for one shining decade (now over, and looking all too brief in retrospect) my working life has been characterized by management who — in practice, if not intent — worked actively to ensure that the workplace was a pure source of misery.
So it has been very hard not to view vacation as a temporary parole. This also has meant that the further away I could get physically, the better it felt.

avatar Emily August 3, 2011 at 8:57 pm

I understand and respect the heart of your argument, but is it not weakened slightly by the fact that your vacation seems to be an escape to your home state? That is, is it still a vacation if you’re returning to the place you were raised to spend time, presumably, with the people who raised you or who were raised with you?

I anticipate that you will say that it is, by merit of its distance from the home you have spent so many years cultivating with your wife and children. I suspect you will say that Rock Island is the place in which your work and leisure are grounded and therefore any trip to remove yourself from it is a disservice to the happiness sustained in its ‘intentional rhythms’.

Even so, I maintain that a vacation such as the one you’ve been alluding to these past couple of entries differs significantly from a vacation to, say, Disney World. Am I wrong? Is there a difference?

Perhaps I am merely trying to justify a summer spent in my hometown—a town I no longer live in. True enough, it feels like a vacation, and there’s something disturbing about that.

avatar Barry A. McCain August 3, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Is there a distinction to be made, if only a subtle one, between “vacation” (as you describe it) and “leisure travel”? It seems like certain experiences would be necessarily foreign to someone, regardless of where he grew up or what he did with his daily life. I mean, of course, the “big things” like the Grand Canyon, Golden Gate Bridge, and Times Square. But I also mean the irreplaceable experience of being somewhere new, be it a mountain lake, a Double-A baseball game, or a public house in a small(er) town.

True enough, too many of us (including me) have fairly crappy, quotidien jobs, and that speaks to a larger problem. But I would argue the longing to explore and experience–even in a controlled way–is larger than a disdain for sitting in a cubicle, staring at an LCD.

avatar David August 4, 2011 at 12:34 am

There is no substitute for a campfire lit at sunset with my wife and child huddled happy under a blanket until the coals grow dim and a slightly discomforted morning woken by sun, bacon and brackish coffee. Such discomfort is good for the soul. There is no need to travel the interstate highway system, but down to the local park, to the spot you visit year after year (perhaps the one with the tree you defaced as an adolescent). There is nothing particularly nostalgic, just a good couple of days to reflect on the aspects of your usual routine which are not salvific. Not a vacation in the usual sense, but a retreat, a time of communal seclusion for meditation and prayer.

avatar Rob August 4, 2011 at 2:57 pm

To follow up on Emily’s point: since my wife and I have family in several widely spaced locations, for many years what we did with out time off was take trips to one family location or another. It wasn’t until we took an actual vacation trip to a new location doing something we had never done before that we discovered that a family visit is not a vacation. I’m sure lots of people could have told us that, but it never occurred to us to ask.

avatar JonF August 4, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Some families become dysfunctional when they are forced to spend too much time in each other’s company. And vacations can easily turn into orgiastic spending sprees; there’s whole industries organized around that goal. (I am also on vacation right now, spending a night in a very overpriced hotel room in Portland ME because, rather uncharacteristically for me, I failed to plan ahead and discovered that August in Maine means half of New England and half of Canada tries to cram into the state.)
But still: some of the fondest memories of my father are of the trips we took after my mother had died, exploring the eastern US which he seemed to know like the back of his hand, but was still curious to see more.
Sometimes spending time with people in unfamiliar settings also helps you to learn to know them better and appreciate them more.

avatar dave walsh August 6, 2011 at 12:20 am

Personally, this has me reflecting about identity; I circumnavigate the boundary of my life over the course of the daily round. Well attended, I gain no small sense of satisfaction from the work. But my mind does slip, and words such as transformation and reinvention start taking hold like weeds.
So I’m thinking it’s not where I go so much as my expression or rejection of the limit revealed by the arc of the daily round.

Put another way, it’s got me wondering if I can possibly be authentic if I don’t exist within a boundary; if I’m thinking I’m undefined – wishing I was, in any event. What a mish-mash – rejecting Deneen’s “thick set of identities” I’ll either end up, actively expressed, one of McDougall’s con men or, passively expressed, one of Medaille’s zombies. Quite a bit at stake, and what appears as freedom is just a trap. Anyway, for me that dynamic right there is the fight – what Deneen called evisceration.

avatar Sam M August 7, 2011 at 5:34 pm

My famil vacations en masse. It has its plusses and minues. We take turns with dinner, both cooking and paying for it. Eating out is too much work and takes too much time.

But in defense of consumerism: I think we view it less as that and more as a lack of “producer-ism.” It’s nice not to have to punch in at the office or at the plant. It’s nice to see what your kids are like at noon on a Wednesday. (Usually.) It’s nice to get tired of each other’s company.

But as always, the question is… when was it ever any different? I doubt that after spending a whole season plowing fields, Charles Ingalls really, really wanted to spend time talking about plowing the fields when he had a little time off. Particularly since he usually spent about half his life terrified that a drought or a cloud of locusts would starve his family into oblivion.

I submit that if Charles Ingalls had a minivan, he would have gone to Disneyland.

avatar Cory Andrews August 11, 2011 at 8:41 am

In 1948, Joseph Pieper predicted: “Now, the very fact of this difference, of our inability to recover the original meaning of ‘leisure,’ will strike us all the more when we realize how extensively the opposing idea of ‘work’ has invaded and taken over the whole realm of human action and of human existence as a whole; when we realize, as well, how ready we are to grant all claims made for the person who ‘works.’” I think we’ve finally arrived.

avatar Gus August 12, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Either you have a wonderful job, a horrible family, or one of those type-A personalities that is unable to relax. Or you’re doin’ it wrong. Whatever the reason, I have little sympathy.

avatar Joel P August 13, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Gus, I have great sympathy. But for his family, not him. Can’t enjoy a vacation? Maybe it’s because you’re a well-read genius who can quote relevant philosophy on the subject to prove your misanthropic point. Or maybe you are unable to be in the moment and enjoy a wasteful, pointless, and exhausting day that your kids will remember for years. And perhaps you might if you weren’t so keen to be above it all. I will concede absolutely every point you make, but I think you fail to realize that the really important things in life (including about 98% of fatherhood) are wedged into the crevices between them.

I’m going on vacation with my wife and two kids (one special-needs) in two weeks. It will be expensive, stressful, and exhausting beyond measure. And I would not miss it for the world.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins August 13, 2011 at 11:18 pm

There is something beautiful about settling down in an old couch, in a common room in an old vacation hotel, overlooking a lake, on a cool rainy day, with a good book you might never have encountered otherwise.

It is also good that people no longer spend their entire lives within six miles of where they were born — although it is good to have roots.

Having put down roots in three states where I don’t currently live, when I was cursed with a full time job, scheduled vacations was my only opportunity to return to the roots I had put down hundreds of miles away, visit dear friends, experience a sense of place I had only partially exchanged for another. Of course, working temp, I had the option to simply say “I’m not available the next three weeks” and hop a train.

A sole proprietor would have a harder time than an employee of an employer, but as long as our economy and our sense of “work” keeps us to the grindstone, building in breaks is essential. Otherwise, you are correct that this is a symptom of a disease, not a cure. We should have more flexibility as a matter of course. The market was made for man, not man for the market.

avatar Joe Perez August 14, 2011 at 11:15 pm

I’m with you on the cultural origins of the notion that vacations are perfectly normal things to do. In a world where work and pleasure were better integrated, there would be less need for frivolous travel.

avatar John August 15, 2011 at 12:27 am

Hi.

I work in manufacturing facility, where my job is to enter an oven wearing an asbestos suit and poke excess coke off the walls with a large metal rod. The inside of the oven is so hot the rod begins to sag after several minutes. This job does not provide much in terms of lifestyle. The nearest lake must be miles away.

When I read paragraphs like this:

“I am trying, rather, to say something about what “getting away” means about the life we’re trying to get away from, and that something is that what we’re running from isn’t right. It isn’t well-made.”

I think: “no shit”. This isn’t what I wanted to do and I have no illusions that what I’m running from is right. The world is full of people who had dreams that weren’t fulfilled; not everyone can be a humanities professor or an astronaut or a blog writer.

Loving your work or your surroundings so much that the desire for a vacation is counter-intuitive is a privilege relatively few enjoy. Our common culture, to the extent it is meaningfully common, is, I suspect, defined more by experiences like mine. Vacation IS escapism, but an unabashed one. It’s purpose, running away from something fundamentally wrong, is not hidden.

If I can find a more balanced work life, I will jump at it. Until then, I will settle for two weeks of feeling like a king.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins August 15, 2011 at 5:15 pm

In a really well balanced society, we would all have jobs like John’s, because they are necessary, but only one quarter to one half the time. We would also all have jobs that are intellectually stimulating: witness that John can think clearly, write well, and say something worth listening to. I am confidence most people with his job are capable of the same — I grew up around paper mill workers and even janitors who had well developed intellects.

And then, on top of this mix of necessity and work better integrated with pleasure, we should all have sabbaticals — why should this be limited to tenured university professors? But a week to go visit grandma isn’t a bad thing either.

avatar Jessica August 16, 2011 at 6:51 pm

I feel that your argument has great points, but alas, I find that any argument that picks one thing over anything else is making a complex process of wants and needs too simple. I too have had the luxury of having lots of choices in this regard and have made lots of choices with my leisure time, and while I definitely have participated in the vibe that you speak of, I have also equally enjoyed literally doing absolutely nothing for myself, and having everything done for me, when I was in a state of mind and of life, at that time, that this was exactly what I needed. So to each his own, and frankly, to each moment its own… different times of your life call for different things, in life, in family, in play, and on vacation. I’m glad you’ve found your perfect fit for this moment, and I hope you keep questioning, and discovering, the right fit for you as your life evolves.

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