"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 17 August 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
No Vacancy



It's the middle of August, and

the country's mandarin class has

left the literally stinking,

beaver-infested swamp that is

Washington, DC, for its annual,

hard-earned dog-days furlough

(all kidding aside, we know that

it's tough work settling

important issues such as whether

flag-burning should be a

misdemeanor or treason). With

the rest of us also excitedly

packing our own bags for fun in

the sun, it's high time to

puzzle over the one truly

distinguishing characteristic of

summer vacations: In the end,

they always disappoint. This

unsettling fact, of course, is

amply reflected in popular

culture devoted to time off. Is

anyone surprised that the

anthem of leisure trips —

the Go-Go's tune "Vacation"

— is an up-tempo dirge, the

documented suicidal effect of which

far outstrips that of the compleat

Ozzy Osbourne discography?


Don't get us wrong. We're hopeful

that the nation's movers and

shakers fare better on their

posh trips than we're likely to

on our own, more modestly

budgeted by-the-way-is-the-


that-hot-dog-extra? excursions.

In fact, we're confident that

the First Couple, vacationing in

Skaneateles, New York —

fortuitously located in the very

state in which one of them may

be running for the US Senate

— will have some quality

time indulging in what Hillary

Clinton told Talk was their

favorite activity: "We like to

lie in bed and watch old movies,

you know, those little

individual video machines you

can hold on your lap." (In fact,

we don't know, but we are too

sophisticated to admit our

ignorance even as we suspect

that the dynastic duo has

sharply divergent interests when

it comes to individual lap



We don't doubt that Health and

Human Services Secretary Donna

Shalala will benefit enormously

from "hiking unspecified

mountains out West" with the

deposed Federal Reserve Vice

Chairgal Alice Rivlin.

(Departmental buzz says the

Hobbit-like Secretary Shalala

enjoys disguising herself as a

shiitake mushroom while idling

away the days in a duck blind.)


We're flat-out optimistic that

Speaker of the House Dennis

Hastert is in for the time of

his life attending the reopening

of the Reichstag in Berlin —

an activity we'd find greatly

disturbing if unnamed sources

hadn't assured us that the

former wrestling coach's real

interest lies in cruising the

Marlene Dietrich/Cabaret

demimonde of which the one-time

Nazi capital remains

unapologetically proud.



So why do vacations inevitably

disappoint? In keeping with

iron-clad journalistic

conventions — all of which,

incidentally, have survived the

long and dangerous voyage into

cyberspace — there are

exactly three basic and

contradictory reasons, none of

which does justice to the

question at hand but all of

which combine to fill the

requisite column inches.


First is the simple, obvious

explanation that vacations in

the United States are far too

short. Who, after all, can even

unpack, much less relax long

enough to have regular bowel

movements, in the measly week or

two (max) that slave-driving

bosses grudgingly grant their

powerless employees? To wit, a

recent conversation about

American vacation culture on the

BBC had the British program host

asking incredulously, "The

United States is already the

richest nation in the world, we

keep hearing; so why do they

take such meagre vacations?" For

present purposes, let's leave

aside questions of whether the

phenomenon of relative wealth is

in any way related to the amount

of time a person works (it

would, after all, be unseemly to

ask a Brit to ponder such a

relationship). Contrary to

portraits of "overworked

Americans" by Juliet Schor and

others, the best data (i.e.,

results that confirm our own

sense of things) indicates that

Americans have never worked so

little for so much.



Between 1970 and 1990, for

instance, annual paid vacation

days and holidays rose from 15.5

days to 22.5 days; over the same

period, ownership of vacation

homes doubled. In 1973,

Americans spent roughly 64

percent of what's called "waking

hours" at "leisure"; that is,

not working at home or at a job.

By 1990, that figure was at 70

percent. Research by John P.

Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey,

which relies on detailed time

diaries (as opposed to more

impressionistic methods such as

the polls and recollections

favored by Schor), finds that

"Americans average about 40

hours of free time per week."

This means that we've gained

about an hour more of leisure

per day since 1965. Most critics

of American vacation policy

— or more precisely, critics

of our lack of a French-style,


five-weeks-minimum vacation

policy — simply ignore such

inconvenient trends, just as

they ignore other, inconvenient

aspects of the French culture

they lionize. For instance,

massive unemployment and the

1998 release of the most

expensive and unbearable French

film ever made, the piece of merde known

as Astérix et Obélix contre César.


The obverse of the "vacations are

too short" position is,

naturally, the argument that

vacations are too

long, effectively stripping

carnival time of its ability to

act as a release from mundane,

day-to-day routine. With shorter

hours and more money, the

reasoning goes, Americans have

evolved into a nation of Robert

Downey Jrs., effectively

liberated from all material

worries and, hence, free from

all material pleasures (not to

mention all sense of shame). In

a world of taken-for-granted

luxury, nothing can truly be fun

any more: What's one more jaunt

down Splash Mountain, one more

hour at Legoland, one more

pennant-winning homer at a

fantasy baseball camp, featuring

anti-legends such as ur-loser

Ralph Branca in a 24/7 world

filled with such diversions?

Beyond fitting better with the

data presented above, this point

of view helps explain why

professional idlers such as

movie stars, residents of

Appalachia, and Ralph Nader

often seem less than satisfied

in their daily lives. We may, in

short, be so glutted on vacation

that work actually starts to

look appealing again. Consider

the opening credits to The

Flintstones, which, despite

being set in the Stone Age,

neatly illustrates a basic

dynamic of postindustrial

America: Fred works at the

quarry until the whistle blows,

then he runs home; gathers the

wife, kid, and pet; and heads

out to a movie and, eventually,

a giant slab of bronto ribs.

Would those ribs, we ask, taste

so sweet had he not worked long

and hard for them?


Of course, the vacations-are-

too-long claim is no more

satisfying than its

counterclaim. Certainly, it

doesn't explain why French

filmmaker Claude Zidi bothered

to tear himself away from the

Côte d'Azur to actually

finish A&OCC. Nor does it tell

us why, if the United States is

in fact a do-it-yourself

pleasuredome in which we are

constantly pleasuring ourselves

like surgically altered rats,

The Flintstones remains popular

in reruns.



Which brings us to the final and

possibly truest reason vacations

must inevitably disappoint:

They aren't escapes from

what matters most. The animating

principle of all vacations is to

get away from it all — "it"

being first and foremost

yourself (or, in the case of the

Clintons, for whom nothing short

of a Total Recall vacation

package would seem to fit the

bill, your spouse). The tragic

insight that we cannot

transcend, even for a moment and

no matter how far we travel, our

sad-sack selves animates one of

the great novels of American

life, The Great Gatsby, which

tellingly concludes with an

image of Dutch explorers

cruising past what would

eventually become "the big shore

places" of Long Island. The

"fresh green breast of the new

world" — even the Hamptons,

for chrissakes — is

ultimately revealed simply as

the same-old same-old. "We beat

on ... borne back ceaselessly

into the past." Like Gatsby, who

ends up floating face down in a

damn fine swimming pool, our

vacations are over long before

we even leave home.

courtesy of Mr. Mxyzptlk

[Purchase the Suck Book here]