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GP 1 August 2007: How to Vacation

Summertime, an’ the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’ an’ the cotton is high
Oh, Yo daddy’s rich an’ yo’ ma is good lookin’
So hush, little baby, don’t you cry
     - George Gershwin’s “Summertime” aria in Porgy and Bess

Ocean Liners.  We are most pleased to learn that some intercontinentals of our acquaintance propose to wheel back and forth from Europe on Cunard, determined to enjoy the passage from their manse in the American South to a house closeted in the provinces of France.  They’ll be a while getting there.  But they will be spared for sure the rigors of airports.  Trains and boats—conveyances of the early 20th century—are fast turning out to be the only civilized way to get around.  Airports are zoos.

We’re reminded of a professor of comparative literature in Connecticut who for 20 years made off for Europe as soon as the spring term ended.  He spoke five languages, had friends from Copenhagen to Sicily, and knew the treats awaiting him in towns and cities across the Continent.  How charming never to complete one’s Continental education and to absorb yet more nuances every summer!  For this reason alone we despise all the obsessive-compulsives who are trying to inflict 365-day, round-the-clock school years upon us.  Coming home, he always stopped last in London in order to put himself back in an Anglo Saxon mood.  On the liner trip back to New York, he lost his Brit accent amidst all the Americans, and was fully Yankee by the time he docked.

Summers are for vacation, and vacations must be done ever so slowly, with no end in mind.  As we noted in “Malaysia, MeansBusiness, Philip Greenspun, Vacillando,” the point of vacation trips is often never to get there.  John Steinbeck essayed on just this point in his Baja books, recounting his stay in a well baked town where he would set out for the post office early in the morning, going down endless byways and partaking of long conversations, only hours later or never reaching the stamp window.  Vacation is taking a sailboat to parts unknown and even praying to be becalmed.  Before the hedge- fund sharpies arrived in Nantucket, the denizens of Sconset Village, across the island, sported stickers on their cars reading, “Twenty Is Plenty In Sconset.”  Well, that’s almost slow enough.

For the first month at least, you should have long breakfasts with forties music  playing on the radio and local newspapers in hand that detail catches of fish and a raft of small crimes such as stolen bikes and acts of disorderly conduct.  Some experiments with the pancakes, making use of mesquite flour, can properly slow things down, while permitting you to cut down on the use of maple syrup, eliminating butter entirely.  At the top of your summer reading list will be Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food Nation close by on the bedside table, only a few pages read daily since you fall asleep fast after a day in the salt air.  If you are only granted a week or two of vacation, then every waking moment should be devoted to languor.

The Cusp of Summer.  Now we are in August, and the pace, if you are not careful, will pick up too much.  Fishing and hikes and bike rides get displaced by trips to the shops and a raft of cocktail parties.  Out at Montauk half the chairs in the very stuffed restaurants are peopled with psychiatrists.  This is their month off.  There’s a lot of clatter surrounding dinner.  The anxious conversation has simply moved out of Manhattan and sped out the Long Island Expressway.  This is the time when we get drawn into doing things again and that is not what we came for.

Provincetown.  We have never seen much point in Edgartown, Easthampton, Provincetown, and a host of places that are very affluent summer ghettos, full of one tribe or another.  In this regard, we refer you to Lewis Bergman’s “Perspectives on Provincetown,” New York Times, July 17, 1983.  Bergman was an absolutely first rate editor who handled the Sunday magazine when he was at the Times.  His strength was not cutting and pasting, but his ability to recognize and appreciate talent, combined with his nose for a different sort of story.  Just the sort of fellow the Times, and particularly the Wall Street Journal, need today.  Provincetown, seen through his eyes, was mainly the home of fellows just like him:

Commercial Street, running along the harbor, is bounded in summer at the west end of town by the poet Stanley Kunitz; on the east end by the artist Robert Motherwell….  The fact is set out merely to suggest that the town remains a magnet for artists and writers.

Bergman, now deceased, probably most loved this summer spot, because it contained all the New Yorkers with whom he wanted to shoot the breeze, but was free of New York’s hassles.  For our own part, we are not sure that really adds up to a vacation.  If we need a passel of artists, better to do a Sunday picnic behind Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s unpretentious house on Potrero Hill.

Kunitz.  Born in Worcester, his parents of Lithuanian-Jewish stock, the poet Stanley Jasspon Kunitz made his life in New York City and Provincetown.  On close reading, we are not sure he was very much in love with humanity.  For sure he adored his garden in Provincetown, and spent many hours in it, perhaps we think more content alone there, than in the company of the wide acquaintance he had throughout literate America.  In the loam he could enjoy the slithering motions of the creatures that peopled his garden: 

Nobody seems to guess
how gentle I really am,
content most of the time
simply to disappear
by melting into the scenery.
Smooth and fatty and long,
with seven white stripes
painted on either side
and a sharp little horn for a tail,
I lie stretched out on a leaf,
pale green on my bed of green,
munching, munching.
    - “Hornworm: Summer Reverie”)

I put out my hand and stroke
the fine, dry grit of their skins.
After all,
we are partners in this land,
co-signers of a covenant.
At my touch the wild
braid of creation
     - “The Snakes of September)

In Provincetown, away from its madding crowd, surrounded by verdure, he overcame the abstractness of his early poetry, and got in touch with a nature that absolutely blocked out urban concerns.  The study of nature does calm the pulse, even screening out the chattering classes of Provincetown.

The Beijing Olympics.  China’s Mandarins are fast trying to clean up a nation that is now thought to generate billows of greenhouse gases exceeding those of the United States, which has a far larger economy.  One report puts the economic cost of air and water pollution at around $100 billion a year, or 5.8% of China’s GDP.  It’s exciting to read all the cleantech initiatives afoot there.  Beijing, which has committed itself to get green for the 2008 Summer Olympics, is shutting down a lot of Chairman Mao’s blast furnaces and doing a clutch of other things to scrub air that is dirtier than the greasy film hanging over Los Angeles.

But it’s a slog, and the best that can be hoped for at the moment is that things won’t get worse.  We think it will take 15 years to really turn the environmental corner.  Beijing has added a few million cars to its streets which has ratcheted up the fumes, and now there are even experiments to keep the traffic down, something only achieved up to now by Red Ken Livingstone, mayor of London, who has made car buffs pay up to go into the center city.  As well, particularly during August, foul air aplenty blows in from very industrialized Hebei province.  The athletes of the world will be coughing up a storm next year.  Is it fair to say maybe that one simply should not bother vacationing where too many congregate?

Summertime.  Back in Frederick Lewis Taylor’s era of scientific management, AT&T learned, after close observation, that it was a fool thing to keep its operators working nonstop.  Breaks made them more productive.  That’s true for all humankind: we need breaks.  The difference is that we require longer breaks than our forebears because our Blackberries and our bosses have us working longer hours and week ends.  One shrewd analyst at JP Morgan theorized that America has not really made titanic gains in productivity over the last 20 years: what’s happened is that the white collar classes are just working longer.  We buy into that notion and advise all to take as many vacations as life permits.

As well, our planet needs a vacation.  Witness Beijing.  It’s a cruel irony that its atmosphere is at its worst in August—just when the Olympics will be taking place.  Banning cars for a few days ain’t a bad idea.  We took great delight in learning that the animals in the Copenhagen Zoo have a country place where they can go to get a rest from mankind.  The planet’s as tired as we are.  Give it a break.

The hitch is that many have lost their aptitude and appetite for leisure.  They simply import urban artifacts and habits to their summer spots: they are horribly addicted to their relentlessly overscheduled lives.  Adolescence, a time for growing up, is a marvelous invention of the last few centuries.  In earlier times, children suddenly became adults, with no time for experimentation.  We seem to be losing this great innovation, rushing our children into adulthood without a break.  Leisure itself is also, in some respects, another great modern invention we are in danger of casting aside.  We rush to fill every moment.  The costs are manifold, even if, on paper, it occasionally looks like we are accomplishing more by running flat out every day. 

P.S.  One way to keep up one’s lazy skills is to read the Idler, about which you can read in our “Thanksgiving Lassitude; The Art of Distraction.”

P.P.S.  What to eat in summertime?  Spicelines, our companion site, has just put up very tempting recipes for cold borscht.  We can heartily recommend both green and traditional beet.  There are several others—white, beef, etc. –which we will explore.  Cold soba is a soothing meal, even though we are finding it hard to lay our hands on quality packaged soba.

P.P.P.S.  Our comparative literature professor would occasionally work in the Boswell factory at Yale.  Yale purchased the vast papers of James Boswell from a Long Island collector.  Boswell was the very prolific sidekick and biographer of Dr. Johnson.  For the longest time it was headed up by the great Frederick Pottle.  This was another way for our professor to keep in touch with Europe, even during the regular school year.  Boswell is a great summer read, or you might want to take up Johnson.  We tend to catch up with him on the Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page.  Wilmarth Lewis gave to Yale his fine collection of Walpole’s papers, allowing it to corner the market on day by day cultivated accounts of 18th century England.  Boswell, Johnson, and Walpole all make for fine summer reading, since they know something about leisure.

P.P.P.P.S.  It is only after college that we realize that Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899, was not at all about leisure.  It really deals with people touched by affluence who scurry about trying to climb the status pole by surrounding themselves with needless luxury and cultural appointments.  The tendencies he identified as conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure, while wasteful, also impose anxious psychic demands on the striving classes who are never at rest.  We have to banish him from our mind if we are to have any hope of understanding the nature and uses of real leisure.

P.P.P.P.P.S.  American Telephone and Telegraph is a company gone forever, even though one of its offspring (Southwestern Bell) has taken over its remains.  It pioneered a host of great management practices and fostered Bell Labs, in its day the greatest research facility in the world. 

P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  In 1912, the Russell Sage Foundation published one of Josephine Goldmark’s most important works, Fatigue and Efficiency, in which she demonstrated that excessive working hours not only hurt workers physically, but also impaired their productivity.  It is easy to see—in schools, in the workplace, everywhere—that we have long since entered the land of diminishing returns, where the sheer quantity of work has run down the quality of work.  Ever since our economy visibly hit the skids in the late 70s, we have tried to get globally competitive by piling more and more work on our employees.  This has not worked.  Ultimately we will have to work smarter, not longer. 

P.P.P.P.P.PP.S.  Not only the 2008 Summer Olympics are troubled.  The sport is being taken out of sports, reports Doctor Lundquist, our sports analyst.  Football, baseball, basketball have all been tarnished in recent days, caught up in scandal and performance drugs.  Recreation has been set aside.  Says Lundquist, “Lenny Kravitz’s hit song ‘Let’s Get High’ should be the theme of the Tour de France, after all the doping reports that bubbled up last week.  Tour de France organizer, Patrice Clerc, also head of the Amaury Sport Organization, commented, “The 2008 Tour will not be like the 2007 Tour.  I commit myself to that.” 

“Since Rasmussen was suspended, Discovery’s Alberto Contador was the overall victor at the finish. Vinokourov’s elimination prompted his team, Astana to withdraw, so Team Discovery Channel came out on top—its third consecutive Tour de France.  Contador was the fastest among youth riders as well as overall with an incredible total riding time of 91 hours and 26 seconds.  Five other Spanish riders finished in the top ten times overall.”  All of a sudden, Spain is the sleeper in the whole of Europe, not only in bicycle racing, but in a host of endeavors.  The Spanish Empire once again is acquiring gold, gleaming even as the shine comes off so many sports.

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