Summer is many things, but most of all it's a competition. The word "summer" can be used as a verb; there are people who summer with greater skill and aplomb than others. If you have an ounce of pride you spend the entire season in a ferocious, unrelenting fever of summering, proving to friends and colleagues that you're much better than they are at relaxation.
Summer is a time when we pause in our normal schedules, retreat from the chaos of modern life, and drift into a condition of serenity and oneness with the universe, all the while rigorously monitoring the vacation plans of our competitors.
If someone announces a particularly fabulous vacation destination, you may have no choice but to mention that the place is teeming with terrorists.
Unlike the other seasons, summers have to be crafted in advance. What you do will be analyzed and rated on the most important day of summer, Back to School Day. People will badger you about what you did all summer, and their faces will be unable to conceal their horror as they realize you mostly ate Fritos.
Sometimes you think you've got a great summer to brag about, filled with tales of the pool and the week at Rehoboth and the educational trip to Williamsburg and the success with the backyard tomatoes, and someone will suddenly drop a Tuscany bomb on you.
"It was called Villa Orgasmica," the friend will say. "Private chef, staff of four, pool, garden, vineyard in the back. They shoot a lot of porn there."
And then you'll slink away, crushed, an obvious amateur at the art of summering. Maybe next year.
The summer travel season officially begins with Memorial Day, but it doesn't really get rocking until right about this time in June, when children are no longer warehoused on weekdays. People start putting in a solid 27-hour work week. The normal two-day weekend lasts three days. Write this down: Friday is the new Saturday.
The travel industry buzz is that this is going to be a boffo summer, that people are travel-starved and ready to put their 9/11 fears behind them. But there's something odd floating in the numbers: The longest trips are getting shorter. The classic two-week all-American vacation is fast disappearing.
More couples have two work schedules to synchronize, and kids are increasingly scheduled to a pathological degree. Families at this very second are clustering over spreadsheets, asking things like "Is the baby free the third week of July?"
From this time pressure is born the concept of the power vacation.
"We call them escapes, or a 'breakation,' " says Melissa Derry, vacation travel expert for Expedia.com.
Only 46 percent of the employed adults surveyed by Expedia will take five consecutive business days off this year, she says. Her company is eager to exploit the breakation market, and offers numerous three- and four-day European packages. Fly across the ocean, have fun, get back home in a flash!
"It's the American mania to work," says Martin Wenick of Italian Vacation Villas. He says his Italian associates are consternated by the number of Americans who zip to Italy for a solitary week and then race back home to work.
"The average vacation length has been shrinking for years," says Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the Travel Industry of America. Only 20 percent of the summer trips this year will last for seven or more consecutive nights, she says.
You might call this trend the intensification of relaxation. Or maybe the compression of decompression.
Expedia's survey showed that 32 percent of Americans check their work voice mail or e-mail while on vacation. (Thousands of Washingtonians reading this statistic are shocked that so many people are so unimportant that they don't check their messages.)
In a streamlined labor market, with many companies having downsized, employees often have too much work to do, and some are afraid to take vacations, says Joe Robinson, author of "Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life." An Expedia survey showed that Americans this year will surrender 415 million vacation days to their employers, about three days per employee.
"We don't have a minimum paid leave law in this country," Robinson says. "That creates a sense of illegitimacy about vacation time. There's no statutory validation for it."
The anomaly in the time trend is the continued existence of people who summer for the entire summer. Typically these are either college professors or the progeny of college professors. Academia has long been the spawning ground for the idle middle class. In the 1950s and 1960s the professoriat purchased their second homes in Maine and Vermont and summered with a vengeance, and like sea turtles they and their offspring return habitually as soon as school is out. If forced to summer at their regular homes these people would wilt and die.
Then there are the road warriors, for whom the success of summer is measured in mileage. Keefe says that 86 percent of summer travelers will get to their destinations by car. The number one summer vacation destination is the home of friends or relatives. Next comes a beach or lake. Pretty far down the list are national parks.
The classic road trip is now somewhat altered by technology, in that children in the back seat can watch DVDs and listen to music and even have their own radio and air conditioning controls. "Don't make me stop this car" doesn't cut it with the current generation, who need a more dire warning, such as: "One more sound from you and I will pull over and leave you on the side of the road and you will be adopted by hillbillies who eat nothing but cabbage and they'll name you Laverne or Scabby or Cowpie or Cooter and for the rest of your life you will NEVER not even ONCE have your own credit card for Limited Too."
Is there an alternative to stressed-out rush-rush hypercompetitive summer travel? Yes: You can summer in place.
To summer in place means you've got Bob Marley on continuous play, the grill fired up pretty much around the clock, beverages on ice in a jumbo cooler, and you're operating on Jamaican Standard Time. Your hairstyle must go on sabbatical.
You've seen someone summering in place before. Walks around in nothing but a pair of ratty shorts and T-shirt, day after day. Scratches the belly aimlessly. Needs a shave desperately. Always seems to have a beer in hand, and getting ready to let loose with a serious belch. And her husband is the same, only grubbier.
Thousands of years ago, humans did not worry about what they would do in the summer. They lived by the rhythms of nature, the seasons of plants and the breeding cycles of animals. If you were a nomad, you were always at home. This shows the way for all of us even today. When you are home it is as though you are traveling; when you are traveling it is as though you are at home.
You do not recognize the concept of summer vacation. Your society doesn't even have a term for it. For you, it is always summer. You are always vacating.
And on Back to School Day, when bombarded with questions about what you did for the summer, you can say: We made an incredible trip back in time.