Write Team: Summer vacation is work without a paycheck

Summer is upon us once again with the celebration of Memorial Day this coming weekend and I am confronted by the same paradox I face every year: I dream of slow, lazy summer days but am only too aware they will all go by in a hyperactive blur.

Vacations, especially for those of us with children, are not for relaxation; they’re for relationship building.

As a teacher, I confess after Spring finals week some part of me just wants to park the car in the garage and leave it there until August, spend 14 straight weeks visiting playgrounds with my kids, eating hot dogs in Washington Square, and catching up on reading and Netflix. Trying to strike a balance between avoiding my lawnmower and my yard not looking like a prairie restoration project. Ottawa is a nice place to be in the summer. We’ve got festivals, live music in the park on Saturdays, and ice cream on hot days at Tone’s Cones. What more does one really need?

And if I could do that, I just might (alright, I’d probably get up to the city from time to time, but no more than that). But the reality is I have family living out-of-state demanding visits with my kids and friends in various places around the country doing things I’d like to do with them. Things to do, people to see.

The scheduling alone is a project. Most people I know, myself included, approach summer like an engineering project: the problem of seeing as many people and having as many experiences as possible is solved by scheduling everything in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it series of events, punctuated by long sojourns by plane, train or automobile. You only really find out what happened when you tell your co-workers about it after getting back to the office.

The 19th century economist John Stuart Mill called time exchanged for money “labor,” and the rest of one’s time, “leisure.” We still tend to think of time when we’re not at work as “free time,” even though for lots of people, time not spent at a formal job is used to do all the work we don’t get paid for, but nonetheless need to do. Cooking dinner, doing the laundry, driving in heavy traffic on the interstate to the sound of “are we there yet?”

The distinction between labor and leisure might make sense if you’re John Stuart Mill, who was made fabulously wealthy by his career with the East India Company. On the other hand, Mill spent much of his leisure time doing what most people of means do with free time: maintaining relationships with others of their class. Keeping up with the latest fashions, attending dinner parties, going to the opera. And through it all having conversations with friends and family.

For all the tears and sweat that go into it, summer vacation is a privilege. And even though I know, come Labor Day, I’ll complain about how busy summer was and how I never got around to even half the stuff I want to do, I’m also grateful for time spent with people I love. Because that’s the thing about love: you have to work at it, but you can’t get paid for it.

Samuel Barbour is a local economics professor musing on all things topical, within our community and abroad. Questions and comments are fielded at newsroom@shawmedia.com.