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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2002
Summer's over. September is coming.
This doesn't mean much anymore now that I'm an employee in a year-round job -- no summers off -- and have been for the last 17 years. In Florida especially, where the snap of fall doesn't arrive until late November and the change of seasons is less noticeable than the growth of eyebrow hair, September is just the month in which all the chain clothing stores start stocking heavy winter sweaters and thick wool suits.
Retail in Florida is dumber than a state election official.
But there was a time when September held a bit more portent. During my salad days in New York, after a summer of bringing two fingers of scotch to yacht owners who were already three sheets in the wind, September offered the promise of new beginnings.
Ahh, to have September mean so much again. That is what I miss most in this voyage from child to adult. The opportunity to rejigger the future, wipe the slate clean, start over. Every September from high school on, you could choose what areas of knowledge to study as a toe-in-the-water for your future. Who knew then that each step forward closed doors behind you?
Of course, reinvention is still possible. Everyone knows the cloyingly cheery poster motto: "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." But for a working adult with responsibilities, this phrase holds about as much reality as the promise of "Work at home and make 80k" or "Lose Weight without Diet or Exercise, Ask Me How!" For the vast majority of us, today will look pretty much like yesterday and the day before that, unless it happens to be a vacation day -- one of the 15 you get a year.
I believe the secret to a happy life is finding the perfect combination of sameness and change. Too much security and stability engenders boredom. Too much wanderlust produces anxiety and dislocation. The question for our age is: Where is the middle ground?
This is the real debate surrounding so-called family-friendly workplaces. We call it balancing work and family life so it doesn't sound so selfish, but really it's a call for the workplace to allow us to be more than just a job title. "Time to be with the kids" is really just a need for time to explore another aspect of ourselves, whether that be parent, artist or Crawford ranch dude. (Can you really be doing your job as president and be in the best shape of your life?)
Unlike other places, we Americans define ourselves by work. In Nigeria, for instance, people will first offer their tribal membership when describing who they are. In other nations religion, ethnicity, family background and caste indelibly mark individuals -- gender certainly. But in the United States, to our credit, we wiped away all those immutable chains and have given people the opportunity to define themselves by what they do. It is a tremendous advance in human social interactions, though maybe it has worked a little too successfully.
What happens when we are what we do because that's all we have time for?
I never thought I would look longingly at German society. But there, employee vacation allowances don't start out as two-weeks-a-year affairs with an added week magnanimously provided years later. The average employee across Europe gets six weeks off and works a 35-hour-week. German workers typically work 400 fewer hours a year than their American counterparts. That's 10 40-hour weeks.
I'm not suggesting we follow this example. This "generosity" has been imposed by governments and has resulted in a stagnant economy with high unemployment in much of Western Europe. Businesses there avoid hiring the way Dr. Atkins avoids a piece of bread. Still, the value placed on personal time is a lesson for our society.
I know people who take weeks of unpaid leave every year. They essentially buy back their own time in order to pursue travel, schooling or important volunteer projects. It isn't easy to give up the paycheck for those weeks, but they count it as an investment in mental health -- it keeps them interested and interesting.
But these are the determined few. Most of us will work like crazy to 65 and then retire to excessive leisure.
And as for September, it will always arrive with the quickening excitement of starting something new, and leave with the reminder that those days are long past.