Vacation daze

Americans celebrated Memorial Day this past weekend—an annual ritual that marks the arrival of summer as much as it honors Americans who have died in wars.

Nationwide, we celebrated with picnics and barbecues, long bike rides to nowhere, movie matinees and lazy afternoons by the pool. In Sacramento, we had the Jazz Festival & Jubilee, Sacto Pop Fest and long floats down the American River.

When it comes to vacations, I find that’s often as good as it gets.

But this summer we are planning our first “real” escape in nearly three years—the kind that requires a very long plane trip, more than one suitcase and days upon days away from reality.

It’s kind of freaking me out.

It’s not that we haven’t enjoyed getaways. In recent years there’ve been camping trips, beach expeditions and long drives to nowhere, but, like most Americans, my dip into the vacation pool has been brief and shallow.

It’s no surprise. After all, America is a nation of workaholics—a habit reinforced and encouraged by our employers.

For starters, we receive considerably less paid time off then those in other countries—an average of nine paid days per year compared to 19 days annually in Canada, 26 days in Great Britain and 38 days in France, according to a 2007 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

In fact, most European countries guarantee paid vacation time by law—every working stiff receives at least two weeks’ worth.

Here? No such thing—at least 25 percent of working Americans receive no paid time off.

And those who do hesitate to actually use it. Compared to our European cohorts, we’re a cheerless bunch of drones: Nearly one-third of Americans don’t use the entirety of their annual accrued vacation time, according to a 2009 survey conducted by Expedia, the Internet travel site.

The reasons are varied but rooted in a common philosophy: It’s difficult to schedule time off, it’s more lucrative to cash out unused hours and it’s just too stressful to juggle both vacation and work.

Call us the United States of Industry. We live in a country so steeped in the culture of work that even as we labor to afford (and champion) a lifestyle built upon luxury indulgences and credit-card debt, we find it increasingly difficult to unplug our BlackBerries and iPads—at least 24 percent of U.S. workers check email and voicemail while on vacation, according to the Expedia report.

I certainly can’t remember the last time I went on vacation and didn’t stay on the grid, electronically speaking. There’s always too much work, never enough time, and the underlying pressure to stay connected is constant.

Factor in one bummer of an economy, and it’s no wonder our vacations turn into “staycations,” which is really just a fancy way of saying that we used our time to finally clean the garage. It’s cheaper, more productive and less stressful.

Over the past few years I’ve taken most of my paid time off (which is nowhere near six weeks) to catch up on a life that feels increasingly crammed with projects, deadlines and obligations.

Maybe that’s why my upcoming Hawaii trip is stressing me out so much; just thinking about the pre-vacation prep is exhausting. The amount of work that goes into getting ready to take a bona fide vacation is nerve-racking with all those shortened deadlines, doubled-up work projects and endless to-do lists.

I have a feeling that by the time I get around to actually packing a suitcase, I’ll be so tired it will take those last bits of energy just to flop down in front of the National Geographic channel with a fruity, umbrella-adorned drink.

Wish you were here.