Summer Time, When the Living is Easy
When I was ten years old, I had a dream: I wanted a chipmunk to eat out
of my hand. I laid peanuts in a trail that led from 15 feet away to the
tip of my toes, with one final nut in my palm. I sat for what seemed like
hours before the chipmunk arrived. The small animal scurried around, looked
the whole situation over, scampered away, and then quickly returned to
pick up the first nut in her mouth. After she tucked it into her pouch,
she proceeded to the next, and the next, and then scooted away to hide
them in her burrow. Happily for me, she returned, getting bolder and bolder,
until she had taken every single nut, every one, that is, except the one
in my hand. She was much too scared of me to risk jumping into my palm
for that final reward.
As you can imagine, I was greatly disappointed. The most carefully laid
plans of mice and men (or in this case chipmunks and girls) had come to
naught. Unfortunately, no one told me that I had made a good start in
acclimating that chipmunk to my presence, or that it actually takes several
desensitization sessions for a wild animal to become comfortable enough
to first take a nut from a human hand and then eventually
to jump into that person's palm for the proffered peanut. I learned that
myself last summer when I finally realized my 10-year-old's dream and
trained a chipmunk not only to jump into my palms, but from one of my
hands to the other and finally into my lap for the nuts I had placed there.
I can't tell you how thrilled I was to finally overcome this animal's
instinctive fear of me. For as opposed to my 10-year-old self, who wanted
a "pet chipmunk," I wanted a relationship with a wild animal.
Wildness, wilderness, Mother Earth in Her most primal state have always
been important to me, even as a child. But as I've grown older, I've realized
that listening to the purple martins' cheet, cheet, chert as they
talk to each other from our purple martin house, or watching the northern
orioles flash their orange-and-black plumage as they fly to and from our
feeder, or just soaking up the view from our porch over Lake Mendota has
an undeniably relaxing and rejuvenating effect. As Nancy Wood says in
"My help is in the mountain
Where I take myself to heal
The earthly wounds
That people give to me.
I find a rock with sun on it
And a stream where the water runs gentle
And the trees which one by one give me company.
So must I stay for a long time
Until I have grown from the rock
And the stream is running through me
And I cannot tell myself from one tall tree.
Then I know that nothing touches me
Nor makes me run away.
My help is in the mountain
That I take away with me.
I have discovered that in order to enjoy the out-of-doors in such a way,
I need time, time for rest and restoration, time to wander in the woods
or pick up shells and rocks along a beach. Or time to desensitize a wild
animal to my presence.
I think about the few weeks it took to acclimate a relatively friendly
chipmunk to me and my offerings, it pales in comparison with Mark Bittner's
experience. Mark is the main character in the documentary film "The
Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill." [BITTNER]
After moving to Telegraph Hill in the Bay Area several years ago, Mark
became infatuated with a flock of scarlet-headed conyers (a type of African
parrot). This bevy of birds lived and bred in the region after escaping
from their owners. Once Mark had researched conyer feeding habits, he
set out a bowl of seeds for the parrots. When they trusted him sufficiently,
he began to stand next to the bowl, his palm filled with the same seeds.
Mark's neighbor claims in the movie that he stood with his hand out for
a year before the first conyer ate seeds from his palm. Now the birds
climb all over his head and shoulders, down to his hands and back again
(or at least they did until he had to move...but that's another story).
Most people don't have as much time as Mark Bittner. He was unemployed
when he discovered his passion for scarlet-headed conyers. But we all
have vacation time, usually during the summer. In fact, for many of us
as kids, the two words were synonymous. The beginning of summer vacation
was the freest part of the freest season of the year. Those were sun-filled
days on playgrounds, at the beach, in the mountains when
we were finally out of the school buildings that kept us sheltered in
the winter, but imprisoned in the spring.
"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' yo' cry..." [HEYWARD]
Some of you might be wondering, "What's all this fuss about vacation?
Why make pronouncements about easy living? Shouldn't you be talking instead
about our work ethic, our self-restraint and our diligence, arguably the
foundations of our country as a great nation?" There might be some
truth to this last idea (although after watching Jared Diamond talk about
and Steel" on Wisconsin Public Television recently [DIAMOND],
Max Weber's thesis about the Protestant Work Ethic seems to be on much
less solid ground than formerly). [WEBER]
Of course, discipline and wanting to see our projects through to the finish
are wonderful qualities, ones that none of us could do without. But I
personally think this is only half the story. The U.S. has also flourished
because of its ingenuity and creativity, characteristics that may be on
the decline as a result of overscheduling our children.
Just a week ago Tuesday there was an article in the Wisconsin State Journal
about the new generation of college students who are having trouble thinking
"outside the box." These young people are high achievers, according
to Tim Dodd, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity at
Duke University, but they seem to lack the ability to think critically
and creatively. What's the reason for this? These kids have been enriched,
challenged, stimulated and busy, with no downtime, no vacation, no boredom.
It turns out that boredom or at least unstructured time
is a key part of creative development. Boredom, sometimes called summer
vacation, is a time for personal growth, where we can break out of our
routines and follow the urges of our own psyche for personal discovery
or self-expression. Anna Quindlen describes this kind of summertime ease
Downtime is where we become ourselves, looking
into the middle distance, kicking at the curb, lying on the grass or sitting
on the stoop and staring at the tedious blue of the summer sky. I don't
believe you can write poetry, or compose music, or become an actor without
downtime, and plenty of it, a hiatus that passes for boredom but is really
the quiet moving of the wheels inside that fuel creativity. [QUINDLEN]
In the U.S. today, downtime is not a major virtue. Instead there's a
workaholic ethic that is driving most of our lives right now, one that
pushes people to stay in their offices way past quitting time. I have
a young friend who just moved to Chicago from NYC, because she would only
have to work 60 to 70 hours a week at her law firm instead of 80 to 90.
And I had a doctor's appointment with a resident at the UW Clinics this
week, who told me he "never stops working," proudly asserting
that he had continued rounds as an intern despite an inner ear infection
that made him fall-down dizzy.
The American workforce is working harder and harder. According to the
National Survey of the Changing Workforce, US employees in 1997 worked
3 1/2 more hours a week than they did 20 years before. Not only that,
we are working longer than we're scheduled: We put in more overtime, undertake
more business trips and bring more work home. Is this progress? I don't
think so, especially in light of the fact that 88% reported working "very
hard," even in the summer. [WORKFORCE]
Summer has traditionally been the season of rest and restoration. After
our farming ancestors had plowed their fields and sown their grain, they
toiled much less at this time of year than we do today. In those parts
of the world blessed with a productive climate and a fertile habitat,
gatherers and hunters were able to labor even less. The Indians in the
Northwest part of North America worked an average of ten hours a week,
allowing them a great deal of time for creative pursuits like storytelling
and dancing, beading and sculpting.
Other contemporary cultures also do much better than we do when it comes
to vacation. While new workers here in the U.S. begin with two days or
two weeks off a year (that is, if they're lucky enough to have steady
employment), in northern Europe, people who start jobs automatically receive
four to six weeks. In fact, in the Netherlands each employee receives
an 8% bonus by government decree, in order to make sure that every Dutch
worker has enough money to take a proper holiday. In contrast, the US
has no official vacation policy whatsoever.
On a daily basis, Europeans have a more laid-back work schedule than
ours, with many countries taking two hours off for lunch (whether it's
called a siesta or a Mittagspause). Our blue laws used to
protect Sundays as a "day of rest," but for many US workers,
that's a thing of the past. Even the people who schedule trains
people who in my experience tend to be no-nonsense efficiency experts
have realized that you can't be productive 100% of the time. They
created the term "fluff time" for the period during which trains
turn around, passengers disembark and others embark, the tracks are cleared
and the trains get started again. We, too, need "fluff time,"
probably a lot more than trains.
we have so little time off, Americans tend to see vacations as opportunities
to consume. In compensation for our stressful lives, we might shop at
an outlet mall or go on a luxury cruise or even travel to a faraway holiday
spot. Since we work long hours, we feel entitled to something expensive
or something special when we have a little time off. Western Europeans,
in contrast, understand that in order to really unwind from the hectic
pace of their lives, they need time, not a three-day jaunt to Bermuda
or the Virgin Islands. They tend to go camping or hiking, spending time
in nature so they can experience what Annie Dillard describes as becoming
"petal, feather, stone." [DILLARD]
They also tend to live simply on their holidays so they have the opportunity
to reflect on their lives. [SCHOR]
Europeans take time to unwind and enjoy some serious relaxing, while
we Americans use our economic progress to become consumers, to use up
the resources Mother Nature provides. In a sense, we bring our workaholism
to bear on the Earth, expecting constant productivity of ourselves and
of nature, exploiting both ourselves and Her on the job and off. We work
hard and we play hard, and we expect those around us to do the same, including
I think we lose on at least three counts with this attitude: we lose
the time we might otherwise have to be "bored" unstructured
time that could lead to creativity and self-reflection. And we lose, because
we contribute to the degradation of the earth, leading ultimately to a
decline in our own health and happiness. And finally, we lose, because
as Chief Seattle (supposedly) said, "we are of the Earth. Whatever
befalls the Earth befalls [us]. Whatever [we do] to the web, [we do to
Perhaps it's time to return to the Old Testament concept of the "sabbatical."
Not only were people to rest on the seventh day in ancient Israel, but
during the seventh year, they were supposed to abstain from all agricultural
labor. The Jews realized that the Earth needed to rest for one year in
seven, with no seeds sown and no crops harvested. We need to restore the
balance in our lives and in relationship to the earth. Instead of expecting
constant productivity of ourselves, we need to stop and ... feed a chipmunk
or a parrot? ...spend time in the woods? ...watch a bluegill in the water?
And instead of expecting constant productivity of the Earth of
Her land, Her minerals, Her oil, Her animals, Her waters, Her air
we need to allow Her some R and R as well.
There are many ways that we can combine rest for ourselves and sustainability
for the Earth. Here are a few suggestions that come from the "July
Green Steps" outlined in the National
Green Pages [GREEN]. First
and foremost, we can select eco-friendly getaways or socially responsible
vacation tours that feature first-hand cultural exchange. The easiest
way to do this is to employ a travel agency that specializes in "green
vacations." When we arrive at our destination, we can use public
transportation instead of renting a car. Not only is this simple to do,
it usually saves money as well. And if we need a car, we can contact businesses
like EV-Rental that rent hybrid or electric vehicles.
Another possibility is to frequent locally-owned hotels, stores and restaurants,
so that our dollars stimulate the local economy rather than national mega-chains.
Among these, we can seek out the hotels and restaurants that are green,
and let the management know that we don't need clean sheets and towels
everyday. And finally, we can consider local relaxation options that save
time and save on non-renewable resources that would otherwise be consumed
by remote vacations. The Madison area has wonderful lakes and forests,
museums and historical sites as well as spas and restaurants that cater
to our more decadent desires.
While you savor your time off, I have three wishes for you: First, may
the respite you plan lead to greater sustainability for the Earth and
all Her inhabitants. Secondly, may you enjoy a very "boring"
vacation, one that allows you to tap into creative desires and joys that
you barely know exist. And finally, instead of a plan for every day, may
you have the freedom to follow your "instincts" and your urges,
the nudgings of some only partially understood part of yourself for discovery
or self-expression. Who knows, maybe then you'll find a chipmunk in your
lap or a bird in your hand.
"The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," documentary film,
2004, based on memoir of the same name by Mark Bittner.
Diamond, Jared, quoted in "Guns, Germs and Steel," National
Geographic Special, broadcast July 2005.
Dillard, Annie, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, HarperCollins, 1974,
"July Green Steps," Co-op America web site, available July
29, 2005 at http://www.coopamerica.org/pubs/greenpages/greensteps/July.cfm
Heyward, DuBose and George Gershwin, "Summertime," Porgy
and Bess, 1935.
Quindlen, Anna, Newsweek essay quoted by James A. Fussell in "Embracing
Boredom," Wisconsin State Journal, "July 19, 2005.
Schor, Juliet, "Real Vacations for All," Yes! A Journal
of Positive Futures, Spring 2001, p. 17.
Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published
in German 1904; in English, 1930.
Wood, Nancy, "My help is in the Mountain," Earth Prayers
from Around the World, Harper, San Francisco, 1991, ed. Elizabeth
Roberts and Elias Amidon, p.97.
"The 1997 National Study of the Changing Workforce," Families
and Work Institute, New York, NY, 1998.