About August

Editorial Notebook

August 07, 2004|By Karen Hosler

IN A PROPERLY ordered world, everyone would be able to take August off.

The month would be spent lolling on the beach, hiking through the woods, snoozing on the screen porch with a novel nearby waiting patiently for attention.

Oh, essential services would still have to be staffed -amusement parks, ice cream parlors, video rentals. But those workers would earn double-time in acknowledgement of their sacrifice: loss of the crucial break to recharge, regroup and recover during a season when traditionally not much useful goes on anyway.

Alas, the trend appears to be moving in the opposite direction. Outside forces seem to be conspiring to ruin the August reveries of even world-champion vacationers.

Take Congress, for instance. These are the folks who make the rules, often for everybody but certainly for themselves. They almost always take August off, and this year had a six-week break planned.

But the pressure of terrorism - or at least the pressure to be seen trying to do something about terrorism - has forced scores of lawmakers back to Washington for hearings on proposals to reorganize U.S. intelligence agencies.

Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, whose own summer break has been robbed by an unusually hectic schedule of August campaigning, has even suggested that the entire Congress return to vote on the intelligence proposals. Fortunately, that idea went nowhere.

In fact, Sen. Strom Thurman used to say it's too bad air-conditioning was installed in congressional quarters. Back in the pre-air days, Congress had to leave hot and muggy Washington in June and the country seemed none the worse for it.

Thanks to the pressure of Mr. Kerry's challenge, President Bush is having to forsake precious days at his summer retreat, that wretchedly hot ranch in Crawford, Texas, to stump through the battleground states.

But presidents have increasingly had their August breaks interrupted even in years when there's no election.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the attempted Soviet coup in 1991 both occurred in August, severely disrupting the vacations Mr. Bush's father took every year in Kennebunkport, Maine, surely one of the world's loveliest spots to spend the summer months.

So unhappy was the president that traveling press photographers had T-shirts made up with a picture of Mr. Bush, golf club in hand, looking mournfully to the heavens, and asking, "What is it about August?"

Students are increasingly feeling his pain. From elementary school through college, more and more of them are back in the classroom well before Labor Day, cutting short a wondrous ritual of youth.

This August work ethic is even starting to take hold in Western Europe, where 35-hour work weeks and seven weeks of vacation help empty the streets of Paris, Brussels and Munich of locals in time for the onslaught of summer tourists.

But competition from the newly capitalist nations of Eastern Europe, where workers are willing to toil longer hours for lower pay, has prompted companies in "old" Europe to demand their employees spend more time on the job than they have in the past.

For Europe to mimic the United States, though, where studies show many workers don't even take all the time off allotted to them, is an unwelcome, even harmful development.

To live longer, healthier, more richly satisfying lives, people simply need stretches of time off with family and friends or even by themselves to do basically nothing.

And there's no better month for it than August - except for the ice cream guys.

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