My dad was a high school principal and always had a good chunk of the summer off. Every year we’d pile what seemed like everything we owned into our station wagon and drive to a bungalow colony on Lake Champlain. They were some of the best summers of my life. We kids romped, my dad golfed, my mom shmoozed with the ladies on the “campus.”
The idea of summer was every bit as important as the doing. The entire family lived according to the rhythm of the school year, and summer meant summer for all of us. It seemed everyone my parents socialized with was a school teacher or administrator. I figured this was true for everybody — parents worked from September to June, and relaxed for much of July and August. We were positively…European.
Then I grew up and got a job in newspapering. And here’s the thing about working for a newspaper that comes out every week: It comes out every week! No matter how hard you worked the week before or how good you felt about it, you have to do the thing all over again. As a kid, I measured time like a perennial plant, growing and blooming over the summer and then dying a little every fall and winter. As an adult, I’m like a bouquet of cut flowers: No matter how nice and fresh I am on Monday, you’re going to have to replace me by Sunday.
(I am still working on this metaphor.)
As a result, I always feel a little alienated from the seasons. The beach reports and L.L. Bean catalogues tell me it’s summer, but in my head it’s Monday. Then Tuesday. Weekends are nice, but then there’s Monday again.
Of course, many people solve this dilemma by taking something called a “vacation.” I’ve read about these mythical periods of labor-free relaxation in the Travel section, which I approach the same way I do upscale restaurant reviews and pornography — fun to look at, although I doubt I’ll ever have any use for the information. To my wife’s dismay, I am terrible at planning vacations, or even agreeing to set aside the time for one. I’m not a workaholic, but I do blame my job: I may want to go away, but the job is still there, a hungry pet demanding its weekly feeding. (Oy, another metaphor.)
So it was a bit of a family milestone when I agreed to take a week off last May and plan a trip to Paris (and by “plan” I mean “let my wife do all the planning”). Picnicking under the Eiffel Tower. Rummaging at the marchés. Catching a film at La Cinémathèque Française.
Of course, none of these things happened, and the only reason I can even mention them is because I read a list of “20 great things to do in Paris” in TimeOut. I ended up in the hospital in April, and we had to cancel. I’m fine now, but here it’s summer, and we’re still looking to get away.
This would depress me if not for a revelation: Had we gone to Paris, we’d already be home! The whole thing would have just been a memory and a camera-full of photographs neither of us has any idea how to download!
In fact, studies show that the real pleasure of a vacation is in the anticipation. Last year Dutch researchers found, according to The New York Times, “that the largest boost in happiness comes from the simple act of planning a vacation.” Even those travelers who described their trip as “relaxing” were no happier after the vacation than they had been planning it!
The solution is obvious: Better you should spend your time planning vacations than actually taking them. Of course, that seems a little cruel, so I have come up with the next best thing, what I am calling “Bring a Little Paris into Your Life©.” Instead of getting all excited over a single trip or vacation that will just leave you broke and blasé after it’s over, do something vacationy as often as you can. Meet your spouse for lunch in the middle of a workday. Visit a museum on a Thursday night. Take a day trip.
I know this sounds like a page out of Cosmo, but my wife and I have been doing this and it’s been great. One Sunday we drove up to Poughkeepsie, NY, where they converted an old railroad bridge into the Walkway on the Hudson. After our hike on the bridge we went to Vassar College and saw a play starring Ken Olin (Michael on thirtysomething). Another night we met at a great hummus place in Englewood. Last weekend we hiked and picnicked at Palisades Interstate Park and saw a new production at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.
Hikes. Picnics. Summer theater. All the activities were in tune with the season. And unlike an annual vacation, they’re not over yet.
We still plan to get away with the kids when they get back from their various camps and travels. But I am losing my anxiety about not doing the summer “right.” I’ll spare you the metaphor, but already this summer is more lovely and more temperate.