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The Sourcebook

The joy of living in the Travel Moment

On vacation, it's perfectly OK to relax and not get a single thing done. But there's no reason for guilt. You're busy living.

January 23, 2005|Joe Robinson | Special to The Times

Crunching through the brush of Zimbabwe's Zambezi National Park, I was jolted by a sound alien to my Angeleno ears -- the loudness of stillness. Minus the usual din, I could pick out birdsong by the beak, rustling branches by the tree and an assortment of distant snorts whose owners were less clear. Every step I took behind a pack of elephants set off a grenade of exploding leaves and twigs in the dry bush.

I followed the tuskers to the edge of the Zambezi River. Crouching behind a thornbush, I suddenly had a front-row seat to a pachyderm party. As a column of moms, juniors and javelin-toothed jumbos neared the waterline, each would first bob its head, flapping huge, veiny ears, then kick up a knee, twirl a foot and back-step in a rubbery soft-shoe. These lumbering leadfoots were dancing, breaking it down as if they were soloing in the "Soul Train" line. I learned later that their moves are a ritual of ecstasy. The prospect of a bath sets off "happy feet."

It touched off some dancing of my own, as my synapses mamboed to the serotonin of discovery. I had glimpsed something "closer to the beginning of things," as Graham Greene once put it -- and got a 6-ton lesson in the universal joys of rub-a-dubbing.

I was so engrossed that I forgot I wasn't being productive. In a society that attaches all value to output, I was languishing in the shirker's realm of input, the vacation. I wasn't getting a single thing done. Unless you count living an accomplishment.

Not everyone does in this era of compulsive overperformers. Donald Trump likes to boast that he never takes a vacation. On an episode of the CNN show "Crossfire" that debated my proposal for a minimum-paid-leave law, co-host Robert Novak said, "I don't take vacations. I don't like vacations. I don't need vacations."

The proposed legislation -- a key plank of the national Take Back Your Time campaign, a coalition of grass-roots work-family groups (time -- would establish a minimum of three weeks' vacation time, which is what Chinese citizens get. Unlike the U.S., 96 countries have statutory protection for vacation leave.

Without it, vacations are vanishing. A survey last year by the AFL-CIO found that more than a quarter of American men get no paid vacation; nearly a third of working women don't. For many more, vacations are being stalled, canceled and abbreviated as workweeks soar to lengths not seen since the 1920s.

Trump, Novak and the workaholic culture that created them would like us to believe that vacations are for wimps, that they're the end of productivity as we know it, that a few days off are a ticket to instant vagrancy -- "Lazy is as lazy does," Novak said -- that you'll miss something apocalyptic (like e-mail!) while you're gone.

But that's exactly backward: You're missing much more if you don't take a vacation.

"Vacations allow us to keep our lives in perspective during our working years," says Dr. Jennifer Ellis, a cardiac surgeon at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., who sees many patients who haven't taken a vacation in years. "Plus it's fun. That's when you should meet your kids and family."

Vacations are not a frill but a necessity for a well-balanced life, as important to your health as watching cholesterol levels or getting exercise. And far from killing productivity, research shows that job performance actually increases after time off. Vacations can produce big payoffs, starting with the ability to vaporize one of the scourges of the age: stress.

More than two dozen studies have linked job stress with heart disease, a connection that explains why a workaholic will die before an alcoholic. "Stress causes five times the amount of premature heart disease before the age of 55," Ellis says.

Chronic stress sets off a flood of adrenaline that makes organs work overtime -- even when you're sleeping -- which can lead to hardening of the arteries, insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome and irritable bowel disease. Job-related stress costs businesses $150 billion a year, and Americans spend billions more on drugs.

But the antidote is free. Time off is medicine. An annual vacation can cut the risk of death from heart disease in men by 32% and in women by 50%.

"Job stress is a continuous stress, Monday through Friday, and most people aren't able to separate that when they get home, so it ends up being a seven-day-a-week stress," Ellis notes. "That's why vacations are important. Your adrenaline levels drop, your cortisol levels normalize."

Bruce Spring, who teaches clinical psychiatry at USC's Keck School of Medicine, says a break "stops further agitation and stress to the system."

"There's time to tidy up the inner house, decompress, catch up on sleep," Spring says. "It's a shift in perspective, a chance to see that these problems that seem so giant aren't so giant."

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