Whatever happened to summer vacation?

Everything about a late-July day whispers vacation.

Early morning sunlight pours into the bedroom, serving as a silent wakeup call. Birds chirp a dawn chorus. A cheerful radio announcer promises a beautiful day - high in the 80s, no rain in sight. The garden and patio beckon. So does a stack of books, waiting to be read.

But it is work, not play, that increasingly wins out when the alarm goes off. There are meetings to attend, reports to write, calls to make. Vacation? Maybe later. For now, those who remain desk-bound in mid-summer must settle for whistling a spirited rendition of "Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to work we go" as they head for the office.

But wait. Could small signs of possible change be in the air, marking the beginning of a peaceful rebellion against an all-work-all-the-time culture?

Three times during the past weekend, in separate conversations, vacation-starved friends of mine in widely divergent careers spoke wistfully of their need to "get a life."

One man, a mechanical engineer, explains that although he enjoys his job, he "can't put it down." He says, "You like it, but at some point you don't have a life." He and his wife have recently had long talks about possible solutions.

Another friend, who has held many managerial positions and logged her share of long days over the years, found her own answer by changing jobs and taking a pay cut in order to "get a life." She uses words like "balance" and "normalcy" to describe the value of her current, less-intense schedule, which includes the freedom to leave work on time.

Overwork is like the old joke about the weather: Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.

What if someone established an unofficial group called the Get-a-Life Club? Membership would be free and open to anyone interested in reclaiming a few hours of guilt-free, off-duty time every week.

Imagine the heady possibilities of actually having time to read a novel. Time to talk to friends or a spouse, or play unhurriedly with children. Time to walk a beach. Time to pursue a hobby. (Remember hobbies?)

Guidelines for club members would be simple:

For one week, as a test, try leaving work on time, or at least no more than half an hour late.

Stop eating lunch at your desk. Even confirmed brown-baggers owe themselves a change of scenery or a stroll around the block.

Take all your vacation time every year. In one informal Internet poll, just 57 percent of respondents say they use all of their allotted days. This only compounds the imbalance of living in a country that ranks lower than most European nations in the amount of vacation time employers give workers.

What if Americans followed the example of France, where practically the whole country hangs up a "Gone Fishing" sign for the month of August?

Adults are not the only ones feeling summer-deprived. Children, too, keep losing unstructured vacation time.

Summer-school attendance is growing in some districts as standardized tests increase the pressure to learn. Educators everywhere keep threatening to lengthen the school year. Even summer camps sometimes resemble open-air schools.

Any list of vacation stealers must also include retailers. Barely had the last fireworks lit up Fourth of July skies, when stores began advertising back-to-school sales - almost a month earlier than they once did.

Call it The Incredible Shrinking Summer, and lament its decline.

Already, an air of nostalgia surrounds the lost freedom of childhood. In a new book, "The Games We Played: A Celebration of Childhood and Imagination," 25 notables from the worlds of media, politics, film, and sports recall fond memories of youthful games and activities.

They write about playing dominoes and Monopoly, and about inventing games with names like Turbo Ball, Tennis Golf, and Bottle Cap Soldiers.

As computers, television, music lessons, and sports compete for children's attention, the book's editor, Steven A. Cohen, recalls a time when their lives were "less structured, less hurried, and less scheduled. When free time was actually free."

But all is not lost. In the 40 days remaining until Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer, there's still time for adults and children alike to resolve to reform. Still time to kick back and relax, savoring the pleasures, however brief, of freedom from deadlines and homework.

Still time, as they say, to get a life.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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