Is this the summer when I will learn to fight against the capitalist urge to “do” something? | Emma Brockes
IIt’s the same story every summer for 20 years: a conflict between the desire to decompress and relax and the guilt triggered by the fact of being absent. (When I lived in Britain, I could extend this relaxation period to a fortnight. In the United States, where no one takes two weeks off at a time, anxiety occurs after about 10 days.) That’s the most self-destructive dynamic. there is – taking time off, only to worry about not “using” it profitably. How am I improved by this holiday? Am I catching up on my reading? Am I seeing and doing new things? Am I charging in a way that will improve my performance in the first week of September? It would be nice, one day, to stop doing that.
This summer, I came the closest to silencing that voice. This was not done on purpose, but rather, as is often the case with parents of young children, by becoming aware of unhealthy behavior because I pass it on. In June, I picked up a summer camp for my kids that promised to improve them with eight hours of intense activity a day. From nine to five, for six weeks, they would be on a schedule with almost no breaks, no fun in the sprinkler, no goofs. Instead, they would be living (my) dream of having new skills—in this case, ballet, music, and voice—in their midst. After a week, one came home crying and the other looked miserable. I ripped them both off, with no idea how we were going to spend another eight weeks of summer.
There are practical reasons behind seasonal child storage, especially if you’re a working single parent. But of course, it’s not just that. The crazy impulse to spoil the good times comes from another deep place. What is that? Capitalism? Calvinism? Two summers ago I interviewed Martin Amis and I often think about how he framed his struggle with this kind of guilt. We were at the tail end of the first intense wave of Covid, during which, he said, he had found it increasingly difficult to work. “Well, I’m going to rest,” he told himself, but that didn’t hold water. “There is the horrible Protestant work ethic that says otherwise. The word ‘God’ didn’t come into the house when I was little, but ethics were there by osmosis. I remember having a very good drink in Paris with my wife and one of our friends; and being really uncomfortable because I didn’t get along with something.
I’m thinking of Bill Gates, who said he liked getting sick on vacation because it meant the time was at least put to good use. I think of an assembly in my high school – extremely strange that I remember this, three decades later – where the head of the business studies department told us that summers were for self-improvement, and that the previous summer he had taught himself typing. I was thrilled by this post, which is probably appropriate at 15 when you’re fresh out the door. But maybe – just maybe – 30 years later, it’s good to take a break.
So here we are at the beginning of August, sailing endless days without a rudder. With nowhere to be in the morning, my children became practically nocturnal. Every night we potter around until after midnight, which means they sleep until lunchtime the next day. The dark circles under their eyes are gone. Nobody yells at anyone to put on their shoes and get out. I do my work for the five hours before they wake up, and then we go to the pool, or the park, or the climbing gym. They learned to ride a bicycle. They watch TV a lot. I spend an awful lot on snacks and swimming lessons, but other than that, there’s no expense. It’s like we’re cosplaying the 70s.
Yet the guilt is there, lurking in the shadows. Is it really OK? What do we do with all this? Does it make us better people? Are we “wasting” the summer? Last week I freaked out and asked my kids if they wanted to do a week of martial arts camp. They looked at me, appalled. Regardless of the fact that going anywhere for 9am would probably kill us at that point, it went against the ethos of summer. Patiently, as if explaining it to someone who is slow to understand, my daughter explained why it was the best summer ever: “Every day is a weekend.”