Quote of The Week

"Never turn down a front row seat for human folly."

Norah Ephron

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Wild Turkey

Most Americans believe that Thanksgiving celebrates the first harvest gathered by the Pilgrims in the autumn of 1621. The story goes that they feasted for three days on turkeys and fruit given to them by the Indians. This doesn’t sound very plausible to me. The Pilgrims, after all, were English, and the English only eat turkey at Christmas. If the Pilgrims had wanted to celebrate they would have feasted on chicken, or roast beef, or fish and chips, or possibly sausages. But not turkey – not in November.

Americans are naturally fond of the Indians-and-turkeys myth, because it presents such a charmingly innocent image of the first encounter between Native Americans and colonists. But the truth is that Thanksgiving was not established as an annual national event until a much later date, 1863 in fact, when President Lincoln proclaimed it a day of celebration for the turning of the tide against the southern rebels in the Civil War.

This didn’t make for a very happy national festival. The Civil War wasn’t something to be memorialized year after year, reminding everybody of that terrible episode. So the origin of Thanksgiving was pushed steadily back in time until it reached the safely mythical territory of 1621, and the much more pleasing image of the Indians happily sharing their food with the Pilgrims.

Like all such ritualistic events, Thanksgiving has changed as society has changed. The harvest doesn’t seem important to most people, unless they hold shares in agribusiness. The Civil War is ancient history. So Thanksgiving has come to be a family thing – a celebration not so much of national unity, but of ourselves.

Nothing is more heartwarming than the idea of the family – the family in Florida, the family in North Dakota, the family in a photo album, or on videotape. But the traditional Thanksgiving celebration shows that we suffer from some confusion about the pleasures of family life. From year to year, people forget that, while families are wonderful at a distance, the family right in front of your eyes across the dining table can be difficult, critical, crotchety, argumentative, and bring up all kinds of memories best forgotten.

So, as psychologists and counselors have often observed, Thanksgiving is a stressful time for families, because they feel they have to be together whether they want to be or not. Later this week stupendous traffic jams will appear at the George Washington Bridge, the airports will be transformed into the third circle of Hades, more tranquilizers will be consumed, much more alcohol will be consumed, and there will be a sharp spike in the suicide rate.

Family get-togethers aren’t so simple any more, because families are so much more complicated than they were in 1621, and not bound together by such strong religious ties. The Pilgrims based their family lives on the strict precepts they found in the Bible. Today’s role models, as seen on television, look more like warring tribes than loving relatives, but that’s show business.

So how do we get through this festival of family togetherness without committing mass murder? We do it by reverting to very old-fashioned sex roles, and acting out Thanksgiving like a charade from the 1950s. The men lounge about and watch sports; the women stay in the kitchen and cook enough food to put everybody into an after-dinner coma. And thus Thanksgiving has been safely accomplished.

It is a stressful time for families, and most of them face it bravely. It’s a tribute to the strength of family ties, or to the awesome power of guilt, that they go through it every year. But family stress is nothing compared to turkey stress. Consider how the turkeys must feel when they look at the calendar and see that it’s November. Forty five million turkeys will be stuffed, baked and eaten on Thursday without so much as a single defense counsel to speak on their behalf. They aren’t even the same kind of turkeys that the Pilgrims might or might not have consumed in 1621. Those were wild turkeys, much smaller and presumably harder to catch. Our modern turkeys are huge, flightless, domesticated caricatures of those wild, free founding birds. They are the true victims of the Thanksgiving story.

Copyright: David Bouchier

After the Fall

The leaves began to turn, quite suddenly after our long spell of mild weather. There they are, a pageant of yellows and browns and reds, signaling something we would prefer not to think about. I have this insane desire to rush outside and glue them back on to the trees one by one. But it’s no use. The temperature is falling and, unless we can find a way to tilt the earth a few degrees in the opposite direction, there’s not much we can do about it.

At least, here in the northeast, falling leaves have been made into a form of entertainment, and even a source of profit. Over in Europe autumn is a non event. The leaves just fall, and vanish into the soil as compost, just as our school biology teacher taught us. There’s no drama, no excitement, no fun at all. Here, by contrast, fall is a massive theatrical event, in which the whole population gets involved. Sleepy New England towns are turned upside down, motels and inns are packed, and hundreds of accidents are caused by people watching the leaves instead of the road. True, the leaves are spectacular, even glorious. For people who don’t have leaves at home, the effort is probably worth it.

We do have leaves at home, billions of them. For a couple of weeks, it’s almost an aesthetic experience to look out the window in the morning. But beauty is not the only thing, or even the main thing. Fall also imposes a great deal of unnecessary work on suburban homeowners, who must now go out and rake the leaves away as if there were some kind of toxic pollution. Raking leaves may not be mandated under the Constitution but, from the disciplined obedience of our neighbors it might as well be.

The origins of this unique American ritual are not entirely clear. The origins of this unique American ritual are a matter of dispute. One school of thought holds that it dates back to the discovery of America by the Viking adventurer Leaf Ericson about a thousand years ago. The tidy Scandinavians, so the theory goes, were horrified to find Long Island in November buried in a mess of wet leaves. So they set out with rakes and bags to clean up, without realizing just how big America was. The whole expedition perished from exhaustion halfway through Suffolk County. Weak corroboration for this folk tale is found in the modern Norwegian Fall Festival of “Lilofest”, which may be loosely translated as “Hail to Leaf the great navigator who sailed for Denmark in the Spring and found Long Island in the Fall.”

Conventional historians reject this rather silly theory, on the grounds that Vikings were never famous for tidiness (if anything, the reverse), and they were not known to carry lawn rakes or leaf bags with them on their expeditions.

The mainstream history of leaf raking places its origins in puritan New England, where many strange things were incubated. Historians find their crucial clue in the word “rake,” which to the Puritans meant a dissolute or debauched person. Anyone found guilty of such rakish behavior was set to clean up the leaves. It was a punishment designed to remind its victims of purgatory, which is a place of laborious, meaningless and endless tasks.

After a few hundred years of this, the link was well established between fall, rakes, leaves, social respectability and ultimate salvation. Nobody ever again thought to ask, “Why are we doing this?” It seemed self evident that, after the Fall, we must do what we can to be saved, and one of the things we must do is to rake the leaves.

So the ritual has survived down to the present day, losing its original meaning as punishment but retaining its moral meaning as virtue. All over suburbia men and women rake leaves as though their lives depended on it. They rake leaves into bags and into great piles. Their neighborhood is a mess, but their lawns and drives are cleansed. They feel purified and liberated, gazing up through the half bare branches. Then a windy night brings down a few millions more leaves, and they begin all over again. It is a social, moral and physical discipline with deep roots in the founding values of the nation. The final act in the leaf drama comes when the town authorities send out monstrous truck mounted vacuum cleaners, which suck up the leaves piled in the gutters by the heroic efforts of the rakers, and truck them off to some distant landfill.

Now the trees are gaunt and bare, revealing the junk in each back yard. The citizens of suburbia feel virtuous but empty, and rush out to buy fertilizer for their barren gardens. The rakes are hung on the garage wall, like swords in a medieval castle when peace has come. The pageant of the leaves is over for another year.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Morning Sickness

Why do they call it Daylight Saving Time? Time is one of the many things, like youth, beauty and opened bottles of wine, that cannot and should not be saved; and in any case, saving things is positively un-American. Daylight Borrowing Time would be more appropriate. All through summer we took that extra hour of daylight on credit, adding it to the end of the day to give us those long summer evenings.

At the end of October, when things are bad enough already, what with Halloween and the elections and Thanksgiving and the Holidays and winter all coming up, our borrowed time is suddenly and arbitrarily snatched back. Darkness falls in the middle of the afternoon, and half the population sinks into the depressed state called SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder – which is not a disorder at all but merely a commonsense reaction to the months of gloom and darkness that lie ahead.

This nonsense began in the First World War, supposedly as a gimmick to save electricity. But really it represented the triumph of the Morning People. We all know that the world is divided into Morning People and Night People. Morning People are energetic, immature and rash. They get up in what is more or less the middle of the night and rush cheerfully off to work, saying how nice it is to have the extra hour of daylight. Night People are more mature, more thoughtful, and less impulsive. They are a little depressed and snappish in the mornings, and need an extra hour of daylight at 5 a.m. as much as they need a meteor strike. But then they brighten up gradually through the day, reaching a state of maniacal energy and cheerfulness at midnight. In other words, Night People are perfectly reasonable and sensible in every way.

You can see the contrast between morning and night people dramatized every morning on the commuter train. Half the passengers are reading and chatting and gazing brightly out at the bleak landscape. The other half are slumped in their seats like extras from The Night of the Living Dead, eyes glazed or completely closed, clutching paper cups of cold black coffee. There is no point in these Night People going to work at all until after lunch. Economists complain about the dismal rate of productivity, but a little creative re-scheduling of Morning and Night People would bring the economy roaring back to life, abolish traffic jams, and bankrupt the sleeping pill industry.

It’s a law of nature that Morning People must always marry Night People, and vice versa. This explains the residual figure of twelve per cent who never marry, because they can’t find the wrong partner, and also why the average duration of marriage is now down to six years. Morning People hide their perverse orientation before they get married. It is one of those many awful truths that emerges only after the wedding papers have been signed, like a taste for porridge or a partiality for cats. After all, if you tell such nasty secrets before the marriage contract is nailed down, you will certainly stay single all your life. Fifty six per cent of Americans claim to be Morning People, so they win. The clocks go back, and our precious hour of afternoon daylight vanishes. It may be democracy, but it’s not justice.

Morning People have some legitimate complaints about the way the world is organized. But it’s up to them to make their own arrangements. As far as I’m concerned they’re welcome to have night clubs that open in the daytime, midnight movies at noon, candle-lit dinners at breakfast time, and New Year celebrations at midnight in Scotland, which is 7 p.m. our time.
But Night People are the real victims in this morning-oriented society. If we must mess around with the clocks, why not set them forward one year, and back the next, so everyone suffers equally? Let’s have no more puritanical abuse, no more false claims of moral superiority. Above all, let’s have no more alarm clocks, especially not those that have the oxymoronic “humane wake-up system” or that play jolly little tunes, like “It’s a bright, bright sunshiny day” and “Oh What a beautiful morning” – because it never is.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Trick or Treat?

Only five year olds and witches really enjoy Halloween. The build-up is long and tedious, and the event itself is short and nasty. This year, the first Halloween candy and decorations appeared in our local supermarket right after Labor Day. Since the beginning of October the quiet highways of Long Island’s north fork featured full-scale Los Angeles style traffic jams every weekend. Pumpkin madness has struck again. Thousands of cars head east towards the great orange fields of U-Pick pumpkins, which mysteriously appeared overnight. I never saw them growing there during August and September, so I assume that they are flown in fully grown from some place like Guatemala, and arranged in the fields under cover of darkness.

I don’t like the look of Halloween. Normally staid suburban homes break out in an ugly rash of skeletons, skulls, vampires, artificial cobwebs floating ghosts, and hanging corpses. Plastic gravestones sprout in front yards, as if whole families had settled their differences once and for all. Every old barn and warehouse becomes a “haunted house” full of dime store costumes and cheap sound effects.

Whichever way you look at it Halloween is a very, very strange event. The encyclopedia says that it is an old Druid ritual, but I don’t know any Druids around here. They must be hiding behind those masks. Two thousand years ago, back in the old country, before they all migrated to Long Island, the Druids used to celebrate Halloween as the day of Saman, Lord of Death.

This may have been all very reasonable back in the Celtic twilight of the late Iron Age, before the Plastic Age. But it seems hardly appropriate in the twenty first century, when we are all so rational and sophisticated. Yet when October comes around everyone – or almost everyone – jumps to attention and plays his or her part in this theater of the absurd like members of a well-drilled circus team. There’s enough material in Halloween for a thousand conferences and a million PhDs in psychology. What dark, repressed Freudian secrets do we see here, suddenly displayed outside ordinary suburban homes – literally skeletons out of the closet?

Or perhaps there’s another explanation. This is a permissive age, and children as well as adults are allowed to do or say just about anything. The only remaining taboos are those that come under the general heading of political incorrectness. The modern version of Halloween is an exuberant festival of political incorrectness, the one day in the year when no cows are sacred. American witches have often complained about the bad image they get at this time of year. They should have been around in Massachusetts in 1692, when they would really have had something to complain about. But every minority suffers at Halloween: short people, ugly people, crazy people, aliens, transvestites, people of color (any color – green, orange, purple), and above all dead people. They all become victims of this wild effusion of political incorrectness on All Hallow’s Eve. The Greeks called it catharsis. I call it regression.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Falling Towards Winter

When the words “Autumnal Equinox” appear on the calendar they send a little chill through the heart as well as the body. Labor Day is one thing, but this is official. Summer is over. It should be more dramatic. But nothing much changes.

When we were in the south of France a few autumns ago, everything changed. All the visitors and tourists went home. The roads north were jammed with millions of sun-worshippers, returning reluctantly to their damp and chilly everyday lives. There was an almost audible collective sigh of relief from the people who actually live in the south year round. Many restaurants and shops cut down on their hours, or closed entirely. It was a true autumn – not just a date on the calendar but an economic, spiritual and social transformation. People would live differently from now until the first signs of spring.

It must be the same in the Hamptons or any summer resort that has this chameleon character – in season or out of season. But, for most of us out here in the suburbs of the temperate zone, autumn brings no such profound changes. A few sunbirds flutter off in the direction of Florida, unable or unwilling to face meteorological reality. The rest of us continue our lives almost exactly as before. The temperature drops in the evening, the thermostat clicks, and the heat comes on. A warm afternoon, the thermostat clicks again and here comes the air conditioning, keeping our bodies at an even 74 degrees. The fruits and vegetables in the supermarket scarcely change. We have eliminated the natural seasons, leaving only the commercial seasons. I suppose we are trying to convince ourselves, with some success, that we are not actually living on a ball of dirt spinning and wobbling in an infinite freezing void, but in a kind of huge indoor shopping mall open 24/7. Only a few farmers, vineyard owners and mariners study the sky and work according to the seasons, and they are obviously off-message.

We do embrace some trivial lifestyle changes in autumn. We read more, watch more TV, exercise less, and eat much, much more as we prepare ourselves for the great food ordeals of the coming months. I assume this is why it’s called “Fall” in America – the fall from dietary grace begins here, with the first batches of Halloween candy. Homeowners can contemplate future problems with the yard and the gutters, as billions of leaves fall, the storm windows that never fit, and the heating furnace, which has been neglected all this time. We start fussing over winter clothes mothballed in the basement. Our outdoor cats become resentful and demanding. I’ve been promising them central heating in the garage for years.

Poets, like cats, have strong feelings about autumn. Keats famously called it called it “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” which sounds lovely. Shakespeare wrote of “Teeming autumn, big with rich increase” – which seems to augur well for the stock market. But perhaps William Cullen Bryant was more on the mark when he wrote of autumnal days as “The Melancholy Days, the saddest of the year.”

It’s been such a lovely summer – politics apart – that I would like to just miss the melancholy days this year, including Halloween the elections, Thanksgiving and the dreaded Holidays. And it occurs to me that in southern hemisphere, autumn is spring. Perhaps we could go one better than the sunbirds by changing hemispheres twice a year – catching spring and summer in Australia, for example, and returning just in time to catch spring and summer here. That would be a good life. My frequent flyer miles could be my salvation, except that they add up to a one-way trip to Atlanta. It’s a start.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Ends of the Earth

Christopher Columbus was fortunate to live in what we now call “The Age of Discovery,” when there was still something available to be discovered. Five hundred years later, what we see on the world map is what we get, now and forever. Space, the final frontier, has turned out to be full of unrewarding dark matter. Modern explorers are left with nothing to explore except a few muddy ocean depths and gloomy caves. It’s a sobering thought.

Even when Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety two he didn’t expect to find any unknown lands. His map showed the great ocean to the west of Europe with a few islands scattered in the middle of it, and China the East Indies on the other side. This was where he expected to land. Instead he bumped into San Salvador.

History is strange. We celebrate Columbus as the Great Navigator, the discoverer of the New World, even though he never set foot on mainland America, not even on New Jersey, which is hard to miss. And, of course, America had been discovered thousands of years before by aboriginal casino operators crossing over from Asia, and again five hundred years before Columbus by a bunch of blond Vikings in funny hats who decided it was a boring place and went home.

All these explorers suffered an extreme form of the common human disease, the restless desire to know what’s over the next horizon. Why else did our ancestors migrate all the way from sunny Africa to freezing North Dakota? We need to keep moving and some people, like Columbus, didn’t know when to stop.

What was the result? Columbus himself got nothing good out of his desperate voyages. He was appointed Governor General of the newly discovered Caribbean islands. But he made an awful mess of it, never got the package tour business off the ground, and was returned to Spain in disgrace. He was pardoned, but in the end he died in poverty and obscurity. If I hadn’t failed Latin at school I would be tempted to remark sic transit Gloria mundi, but I won’t.

One thing we can say for sure about history is that it rewards the winners. Who remembers the thousands who tried to make that voyage and failed? History also rewards the leaders, not the troops. The ordinary seamen who suffered and often died in the service of Christopher’s ambition might just as well never existed. Those men were so scared of sailing into the unknown that Columbus kept two separate logs, one of which charted the ship’s real progress and course and the other, intended to reassure the hands, that seemed to show that they were on a much shorter and safer voyage. In other words they weren’t heroes, they were dupes.

Half a millennium later Columbus is remembered as a hero rather than as a con artist, and the results of his restless voyages have been momentous. Consider what the world would have been like if Lief Ericcson and Columbus and the rest had just stayed at home, if everybody had just stayed at home to cultivate their gardens. History would be utterly changed. That blank space in the western ocean would have remained blank, and Native Americans would never have been forced to go into the casino business. They would be living an Arcadian life across this beautiful continent, hunting and eating buffalo burgers. All the hyphenated-Americans would be living in their old countries with their old cultures, and speaking their own languages. The American revolution of 1776 would never have happened, and so the French Revolution of 1789 would almost certainly never have happened either. France could now be ruled by King Louis the twenty-fifth, which might be an improvement. Without America Germany would easily have won the First World War, and we’d all be wearing pointed helmets and saluting the Kaiser. And it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without Hollywood movies, McDonalds, Spam, jazz, Bill Gates, Donald Trump, and all the other great American inventions.

Above all, if it hadn’t been for Columbus and his obsession, there would be no Columbus Day Sales. The first recorded Columbus Day sale happened in 1478 when Columbus, then twenty-seven years of age, was hired to make a voyage to the island of Madeira to buy sixty thousand pounds of sugar at a special price. But, by the time he arrived, the sale was over and the price had gone up.

Great men may change history, but some things never change.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Yesterday’s Pool

I was riding the Long Island Railroad into New York, reflecting that the great advantage of this train is that it allows you to enjoy the scenery. The landscape doesn’t rush by in a blur, as it does when you travel on the French TGV or the Japanese Bullet Train. The Long Island Railroad train jogs sedately along at the speed of a horse and carriage, so passengers can appreciate the passing show.

It is a social and perhaps even a sociological experience because the track passes by hundreds of backyards, offering a peep show into other people’s lives. What struck me on this particular journey was how many houses had pools: big and small, above ground and in ground, square, round and curved pools, all looking rather sad in the chilly September rain. Even if a few warm days still lie ahead, those pools are yesterday’s news. Halloween witches have already appeared in the supermarket, and the Christmas catalogs began arriving in August. The first snowstorm can’t be far away. But what do you do with a pool in winter? You can’t hide it away in the garage like a barbecue, or put it out for garbage collection like a broken lawn chair.

In fact most pools lie unused most of the time, even in the best summer. Here in the northeast a pool is a very American, very optimistic investment. In all the years I’ve traveled up and down that line I can’t remember ever seeing anyone in any of those pools. We can hear when our neighbors’ pools are in action. Apart from the splashing noises, there are shouts and screams unique to pool use, unlike any other sounds uttered by suburbanites in everyday life. But we hear these joyful sounds on only three or four hot weekends every season. It would make more economic sense for a street or a subdivision to share one big pool – but that would be communism.

Some hardy souls, who hate to waste a good investment, keep their outdoor pools running into October, and even into November. We can sometimes hear their shrieks of joy, which could almost be mistaken for shrieks of agony, when they plunge into the frigid water.

But all good things must come to an end, and a pool cannot just be ignored when winter comes. It must be expensively “closed.” This is a huge operation, comparable to mothballing in Boeing 747. Closing must be done at exactly the right moment: too early and you get algae bloom in spring, too late and you get a pool full of dead leaves. All the water must be drained out, of course, typically four or five thousand gallons, and you have to wonder what happens to all that chemical-rich water. Then elaborate rituals of purification must be carried out, with chlorine and algizide, ending with the installation of a cover strong enough to prevent visitors from the Midwest from falling right through. One advertisement in a local paper shows a baby elephant standing on the pool cover, which may be exaggeration. But it makes the point.

Closing must be a dispiriting as well as an expensive process for pool owners, especially after such a cool and rainy summer. But sometimes I think that backyard swimming pools are more symbolic than practical. Even the closed pool, its tarpaulin weighed down with rainwater and leaves, is a harbinger of hope, like the Michaelmas Feast in September, or bulbs planted in October, or spring fashions in January, or the darkness before the dawn. Summer will come again. The pool guarantees it.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Are We Having “Fon” Yet?

Every year, as Labor Day fades into the past, the cry goes up around the land: “Summer’s nearly over. Are we having fun yet?”

This is a good question, but hard to answer because nobody is exactly sure how or where “fun” is to be had. It seems to be a relatively modern concept. The characters in Jane Austen or Dickens, let alone Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, never had “fun,” or worried about not having it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “fun” derives from an ancient dialect word “fon,” meaning a trick, a cheat or a hoax. That is to say, “fon” was something you did to other people, while “fun” is something we are supposed to do to ourselves.

This is a useful distinction, and I think it should be revived. For example, I have here a brochure for one of those amusement parks where, for a fee of $25, you can be whirled around, plunged into water, and generally made thoroughly ill and uncomfortable. “The Fun Starts Here,” it says on the front, in large letters. But what they mean is: “The Fon Starts Here,” because the joke is entirely and literally at our expense.

Old-style amusement parks of the P.T.Barnum type made this blatantly obvious. Paying customers were assaulted with distorting mirrors, under-floor fans, and all kinds of shocks and surprises that made them look and feel foolish. Humiliation and embarrassment were the essence of fon. Now we are all so puffed up with self-esteem and so well-armed with lawyers, that amusement park operators have to be much more subtle. Their artificial surprises are elaborately explained in advance, complete with health warnings for people who may have bad backs, or heart trouble. Nobody is shocked or humiliated in modern amusement parks, which is why they are so supremely boring. Not only are they not any fun, they are not even any fon.

Most adults realize this, more or less clearly. They look for fun in more individual, personal activities. But there has been a kind of fun inflation, like grade inflation in the schools. It’s no longer acceptable to have fun simply by sitting around with a bunch of friends, eating and drinking like peasants at a Breughel wedding. A bike ride or a fishing trip to the local pond is no longer enough to provide fun for the whole family.

Fun requires equipment. It may be a high-powered computer, or a jet ski, or an Olympic size pool. Generally speaking, the more the equipment costs, the more fun is promised and expected from it. And since nobody knows exactly what fun is, or how it feels, the search for it is very much like the search for happiness, namely long, expensive, and doomed to disappointment.

It is interesting to contemplate the more bizarre manifestations of the search for fun. These include the so-called extreme sports, in which fun is equated with taking almost suicidal risks, in order to experience the “emotional highs” that so seldom accompany ordinary suburban life. Extreme sports include alpine paragliding, skydiving, mountain biking in real mountains, white water kayaking, and under-water hunting.

If these experiences sound about as much fun as a root canal to you, you’re right. Like the amusement parks they are examples of fon, not fun. The participants are the victims of a whole repertoire of unkind jokes. The brochure said that this would be fun and – without some firm definition of fun to cling to – how can they tell that it is not?

At the end of the Summer fun season, students must return to their schools and colleges. They should be happy, because education is supposed to be fun too. But, from the students’ point of view, I fear that it may seem like the ultimate example of fon.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Give me a Break

It’s a paradox that Labor Day is devoted to fun and idleness because, after all, it’s
the one-day in the year when we are supposed to celebrate work. Work has a very
special status in America. Most foreigners consider work to be a curse and a nuisance.
But here it is generally considered to be a good and even a noble thing. If
the statistics are to be believed, which perhaps they should not be, Americans
work harder than any other nation on earth.

It’s a source of astonishment to Europeans that Americans take so little vacation
time. The average worker gets a tiny 8.1 days’ vacation after a year in the job,
and 19.2 days after three years, if they’re lucky. One out of ten companies gives
no paid vacation at all, and in some states it’s as low as one out of five.

How did American vacations get so short? The Germans enjoy thirty days of
paid leisure time each year, and the wicked French have five weeks. The Italians
have six weeks. What’s more, Europeans actually take their vacations. They leave
work, and leave town, and don’t come back until the last possible minute. Here,
many people we know don’t even take the short vacations they are entitled to.
The only person in this country who takes full-length European-style vacations is
the President, who vanishes off to some golf course for weeks at a time. Presumably we
continue to pay his salary during these relaxing breaks.

An earlier President, William Howard Taft, proposed in 1910 that all American
workers should be entitled to a two to three month vacation. In 1939 the
Department of Labor also recommended mandatory paid vacations for everybody.
It never happened, and in fact vacations have been getting shorter and
shorter since 1945.

One explanation of American work habits is that we love our work so much
that we can’t bear to be away from it. The statistics on job satisfaction do not bear
this out. Another traditional answer, proposed by the sociologist Max Weber in
1904, is that America inherited a “Protestant work ethic.” Hard work is pleasing
to God, and idleness is next to sin—a belief that Benjamin Franklin incarnated
back in the eighteenth century. But it’s hard to credit that this historic Protestant
neurosis still motivates American workers of all faiths today.

Our hard work should pay off in superior productivity. But those lazy Europeans
are actually more productive. This makes no sense at all and I can think of
only two plausible reasons.

One theory is that Americans are only pretending to work long hours. You
may have noticed how few people seem to be actually at work at any given
moment. You can spend all day calling people who should be in their offices and
getting nothing but voice mail. During working hours the highways and malls of
Long Island are packed with people who seem to be of working age and who are
not obviously driving taxis or trucks. I know this because I am often out there
myself, driving around as pointlessly as the rest of them.

Some of these unoccupied folks are retired, of course, some may be working
night shifts, and still others may have won the lottery so they don’t need to work
at all: but so many? Can these daytime drivers and shoppers be just goofing off,
wasting time and gasoline and contributing nothing to the national economy?

The other explanation of the productivity paradox is the one I like better.
Americans are just tired. We need a longer break each summer. William Howard
Taft, a progressive Republican who liked to take it easy, had it right the first time.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Feel My Pain

Everybody loves a mountain, especially if they can drive up to the summit instead of climbing. The most popular and highest mountain in the southwest of France is called Mount Aigoual, standing a little over five thousand feet, which has two excellent roads leading to the top. Our little Fiat just made it, and we were rewarded with a spectacular panorama. What took away some of the pleasure was the pain and suffering of the many cyclists who, for mysterious reasons known only to themselves, had decided to ride all the way up the mountain, a distance of twenty-two miles, not a single yard of them flat. There were dozens of cyclists, perhaps hundreds, all bathed in sweat with agonized faces and leg muscles that stood out like steel cables at breaking point. Nobody, as far as I know, was forcing them to do this. It was their own choice.

I can see that coasting down the mountain would be fun. When I was a kid my friends and I used to ride to a nearby hill and puff our way up to the top, just so we could come zooming down again. But our hill was only about a quarter of a mile long, probably no more than fifty feet high at the summit. That was all the pain and suffering we needed at that or any other age.

Human nature is unfathomable, although Sigmund Freud among many others tried to fathom it. Psychologists have long recognized the existence of masochism, the ability to get pleasure from pain. It seems to explain a lot about human nature, although we might be happier if it explained less. The world is full of examples. In addition to the cyclists we saw people resolutely walking the twenty-two miles up that mountain, carrying heavy backpacks. The trek takes eight hours. The diagnosis seems obvious, the treatment less so.

Painful activities are extraordinarily popular – marathon running, all kinds of athletics, eating healthy diets, camping, and so on. I read about a forty-six-mile off-road triathlon in Sweden that must be a kind of benchmark for miserable experiences. “It’s about taking as much pain as possible,” said one of the organizers. Indeed, enthusiasts like to say: “Feel the pain” with a kind of pride. But plenty of people with arthritis feel the pain – there’s no virtue in it.

Pain is not just a pleasure for young people. Before climbing the mountain in our Fiat we had visited a famous spa nearby. This offered cures for just about everything, including old age, with a combination of sulfur baths and massage, with the additional option of being covered in honey as a special treat. The mixed stink of sulfur and honey in the place was quite literally nauseating, so we stayed only long enough to see a row of already-processed victims, people at the far end of life but still keen to suffer, sitting hollow-eyed on plastic chairs, wrapped in white robes, and obviously glad that the torture was over.

This may be the answer of course. We enjoy suffering when it stops, when we get to the top of the mountain or climb out of the sulfur bath. It’s the anticipation of relief that gives us courage, and the anticipated sense of superiority. Not for me though, I don’t like pain. I go to considerable lengths to avoid it. But am I missing out on the pleasure of pain? Should I be torturing myself, just for the fun of it? It’s the kind of question that gives me a headache, but an aspirin should take care of that.

Copyright: David Bouchier