An August Quandary: Return to Work or Play On

Article excerpt

OUTSIDE our office windows these days, the August sun fills the city with dazzling light. Neighborhood children splash gleefully in a nearby fountain. Tourists rumble through historic neighborhoods in open-air trolleys, and even locals stroll through the normally bustling Prudential Center at an unhurried pace. Everything about the season seems to shout: Relax! Enjoy! Play!

But step inside the nearest shopping mall and summer suddenly disappears. In the make-believe world of window designers and display artists, the season shifts dramatically to fall and even winter. Here vacations have already ended, school has started, and corporate life has resumed its harried pace. Goodbye colorful cotton shorts and bare feet. Hello dark wool suits and heavy shoes. The stern message echoing from retailers' displays is: Work. Study. Be serious and responsible.

August is that kind of month. It is a seasonal tease, daring workaholics to play and vacationers to return to work. With its shorter days, cooler nights, and tinges of red on the occasional maple, it produces what one friend calls "that 'Oh, no' feeling - Oh, no, summer's ending."

At the same time, it creates a mood of delicious anticipation - of blank notebooks and sharp pencils, heralding fresh starts and new possibilities.

August's dual identity also captures Americans' profound ambivalence about work and play. This year, that confusion seems more pronounced than ever. Thanks to the more relaxed standards set by the new "casual Friday" corporate dress codes, more employees are wearing vacation clothes to work, and not just on Fridays.

At the same time, the proliferation of modems, faxes, and cellular phones is encouraging more people to take work with them on vacation. They head for the shore - or the hills - with one ear on the voice-mail messages accumulating on their office phone and one eye on the e-mail filling the screen of their portable computers. Even when they try to relax, they remain wired into working America. …