June 18, 2009
The Summer of Our Discontent
Remember when we were kids and each year followed a familiar, structured rhythm? School would start in September, we would get a few weeks of winter break, more school, and then summer! The end of the school year meant one thing: summer vacation! Freedom! Every year I would look forward to nearly three months of sleeping in, watching morning cartoons and reading.
The memory I have of this transition from school to "not-school" is that it registered only as the beginning of summer rather than an end to classes. There was such relief. I liked school reasonably well, but I always felt as though the break from all the expectations of classes, of sports schedules, of navigating the tumultuous waters of the schoolroom social hierarchy, was a well-earned respite. I planned each year to revel in it. And I did--for about two weeks, at which point I was generally ready to go back.
Of course, there came a point when summer was less about respite and more about stresses: summer school, summer jobs, the uncertainty of whether or not I could see family, year-round employment with limited time off. Summer vacation, which had always seemed like a given--almost a right--became at times merely a hope, often limited more by financial concerns than by time constraints. Summer, it sometimes seemed, was not so much an opportunity for rejuvenation but rather a season of discontent.
I don't think I've been alone in this. The summer vacation event seems to be part of the fabric of the season. As with Christmas (when we ask when coworkers or friends might depart to visit far-off relatives), come May and June we begin asking what everyone's summer vacation plans are. It's exciting to hear about other people's plans to far-off places. On the other hand, things can get awkward when no destination trip is in the works. More than simply an event, the summer vacation is a cultural norm, a goal, a symbol of social status or financial standing. People who take lavish vacations are envied; those unable to take them are pitied.
But more, even, than this, I wonder if the idea of a summer vacation has taken on some of the symptoms of a greater cultural phenomenon: escapism--not just "getting away" but actually "tuning out." Given the cultural trend toward embracing new technologies that allow us to escape in some form from the immediacy of our surroundings or circumstances (such as television, video games, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) this wouldn't be at all surprising. Especially since so many other forms of escapism are designed to be taken with us wherever we go--including on vacation.
Whether we're boarding a plane or packing the car for a road trip, the one thing that summer vacations have in common with gaming, watching T.V. and spending hours on Facebook or Twitter, on cell phones or with music blaring through our headphones, is perhaps a sense of separation from the "real world," of going to a "neutral" location where the cares and concerns of work or family or future are suspended while we disconnect, or engage something that exists differently. It's easy to forget that, no matter how far we travel--virtually or literally--we can't actually leave it all behind.
Posted by Christa Countryman at June 18, 2009 7:25 AM | TrackBack