A Land Far, Far Away

On this Labor Day—the grand finale of summer—I presume that you, the average American, have recently gone on some sort of vacation.

If so, may I ask why?

Of course, the potential answers to this are endless.

If you’re like me, perhaps you got away to explore some exotic foreign city, visiting museums, touring historic sites, taking in an unfamiliar culture to learn more about the world around you.

Or, if you’re like me at other times, you went on holiday to do nothing of the sort.  You sat on the beach, by a pool or in a hotel room and didn’t do jack squat.  You slave away and zig-zag from one activity to the next all the rest of the year, and this was your one chance to cool down and tune out.

Then there’s everything in between.  Visiting family and friends.  Catching up on House of Cards and the latest bestsellers.  Hiking the tallest peaks and diving in the deepest oceans.  Hauling off to the most remote villages or squeezing into the densest of modern metropolises.

In a way, all these and more are really more of the “what” than the “why” when it comes to vacationing.  Disparate as our myriad getaway adventures are, they do, in the end, serve the same essential underlying purpose:  Allowing us to be somewhere else.

Bill Maher summed it up well enough in one of his stand-up specials:  On any TV game show, the winners are invariably ecstatic upon winning an all-expense-paid trip, no matter what the destination happens to be.  Whether it’s Paris or some third-world hellhole, the point is that they’re able to escape.  To leave their normal routines behind, if only for a few days, and experience something different and new.

Well, we all have that need, do we not?  However comfortable our day-to-day lives, however content we are with the place we call home, sooner or later it’s necessary to mix things up.  Familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it most certainly breeds idleness and boredom, not to mention a depletion of one’s creative faculties.

They say the definition of a romantic is one who always wants to be somewhere else.  What do you call a person who always wants to be in exactly the same place?  If you ever meet such a person, be sure to let me know.

And why do we feel this way?  What do we desire—what do we gain—from a periodic, temporary change of scenery?

Fresh air, for starters.  First in a literal sense, if you happen to reside in some stuffy apartment or a town that’s a wee bit overcrowded.

But also in the figurative sense of getting a fresh view of the world and many of the people in it.  As many a wise man and woman have said, the main benefit of travelling abroad is to see your home country in a whole new light.  As Plato teaches us in the “Allegory of the Cave,” to know that the world exists beyond your immediate field of vision is the first step in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.

Or, to bring this point more down to Earth:  Have you not noticed how your mind tends to clear and relax when you are physically removed from your natural habitat?  How certain problems that seemed insurmountable suddenly ease up and dissipate like the morning mist?

I have found that much of my cleverest and most interesting writing has emerged from some remote location, be it a cabin in Vermont or upon the seat of my bicycle.  I dare say I am not alone in this fact.

We all know that humanity’s greatest insights invariably arise in the shower—particularly at a blissfully hot temperature, first thing in the morning.  Well, in the context of an ordinary day, is there any finer example of a momentary respite from reality than that?

No, I think it is self-evident that vacations—mental and physical—are necessary and pleasurable not only for their own sake, but for their lasting benefits once our lives have returned to normal.  They allow us to broaden our horizons and improve ourselves and others in a manner that cannot come about in any other way.

All of which leads me to a very simple question:  Why do we make an exception for the president of the United States?

If the principle of relocating in order to recharge one’s mental batteries is good enough for us, why isn’t it good enough for the most important man on the face of the Earth?  Isn’t he precisely the sort of person who needs and deserves to be tanned, rested and ready for any problems that might come his (read: our) way?

I ask in light of the incessant and utterly predictable blather about the Obama family’s annual sojourn in Martha’s Vineyard for two weeks in August, and particularly about the commander-in-chief’s borderline obsessive proclivity for playing golf—a criticism most entertainingly leveled by Maureen Dowd in a priceless recent column in the New York Times.

Of course, attacking the sitting president for taking time off is a thoroughly bipartisan affair—liberals never tired of pointing out how much time George W. Bush spent at his Texas ranch while in office—and it has managed to become so much of a cliché as of late that many have decided to give it a rest.

However, insomuch as this issue of presidential sick days is no longer a genuine bugaboo for most folks, it is for all the wrong reasons.  And it is worth underlining why the chief executive’s free time is so valuable to the republic.

The conventional gripe is that the president’s responsibilities are too momentous to be given even an hour’s reprieve.  And the conventional retort is that the president is never truly on vacation, anyway:  However exotic his surroundings, he is always and forever in his insulated universe of secret service agents, security briefings and the fact that everything he does and says is under the closest possible scrutiny.

Both of those things are true, but neither accounts for the value of the change in locale and routine, as documented throughout history, from Dwight Eisenhower’s own golf outings to Franklin Roosevelt’s extended stays in Hyde Park, New York and Warm Springs, Georgia.

But then very little imagination is required on our parts, if anything I have said here is true.  Anyone who has ever worked in an office setting knows how confining the experience can be over time, and how beneficial it is to one’s mental health to, say, eat one’s lunch on a park bench rather than at one’s desk.

Now picture what the Oval Office is like, where the stakes are incalculably high and the workday never really comes to an end.

To those who truly believe that the American president should not be hanging around a golf course so long as something terrible is happening somewhere in the world, I can only ask:  Would you prefer that he never left the White House at all?

Perhaps you do, and certainly most of us like to high-mindedly bang on about a president’s duty to be always at the ready, as if he were Batman.

But the truth is that the human need for the occasional breather does not end at the Oval Office door.  That the president be allowed to travel and (partially) relax like anyone else is in the best interest not only of him, but of the country as a whole.  It is a would-be paradox that we should acknowledge on this of all days, in which we celebrate the working man, and work itself, by taking the day off.

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