Are you really on vacation if you have a press conference?
President Obama started his summer vacation right about when mine ended.
The timing was purely coincidental, of course.
The republic probably would endure even if my periods of leisure happened to coincide with the president’s.
At any rate, I suspect my time off was rather more relaxing than Mr. Obama’s has been — even though none of my destinations was as tony as Martha’s Vineyard.
(I did visit the seaside. But this was in egalitarian Oregon, where the beaches are public and all comers (and combers), whether the leader of the free world or a just a little girl, can get sand between their toes.)
Not once during my vacation did I turn on the TV or open a newspaper and come across a haughty commentator wondering why I haven’t gotten around to fixing the economy, or demanding that I explain what America’s going to do about Libya.
Which is not to say that I spent the whole of my holiday strolling non-exclusive Pacific shores and engaged in other generally frivolous pursuits.
I am tending a patch of new grass.
This is a task that weighs on a man’s mind, what with cats and squirrels and other animals prone to excavating, not to mention the arid heat of August.
But it is the sort of job a president can easily delegate to underlings while he mulls troop levels in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the pressure associated with my humble efforts at agronomy is trifling. If I let the tender blades wither, the Dow isn’t likely to shed 200 points in response.
Also, Rush Limbaugh won’t tell 5 million listeners about the ugly bare spots where I failed to sow the seed evenly, no doubt because I got sidetracked while plotting how to plunder millionaires’ vast holdings.
Presidential vacations have long been political fodder, of course, for whichever party doesn’t currently hold the highest office.
Certain Democratic pundits, for instance, fretted like jilted lovers whenever Bush the younger jetted off to Texas to cut brush and ride his mountain bike.
This brand of partisan puling about has always seemed a bit silly to me, albeit of the harmless variety.
The notion, so far as I can tell, is that the president shouldn’t be cavorting around exclusive resorts with his wife and kids while his constituents wait for their next unemployment check so they can get the power turned backed on.
This premise, though it might briefly inflame the guy who’s sitting in the dark, is in reality as flimsy as one of those balsa gliders powered by a rubber band and a plastic propeller.
The president is not like you or me.
And more to the point, neither are his his job or his vacations.
Presidents, no matter what both their apologists and their critics imply, can’t effect sweeping and immediate changes to the national landscape on a whim.
(There is a legislative body called Congress, to name but one impediment. And it has a habit of taking most of August off, come hellish heat wave or, in certain flood-prone regions, high water.)
Now it’s a fair point to make — and many have — that Mr. Obama’s economic record is less than stellar.
But no reasonable person believes that the president has a miraculous cure to the nation’s financial malaise sitting on his desk, and that he left it there to languish until he gets back from Massachusetts.
(And he doesn’t care if your Lexus gets repossessed in the meantime. Go buy an electric golf cart, you conspicuous consumer.)
The greatest difference, though, is that unlike almost everyone else, the president not only has certain obligations that he can’t ignore no matter how comfortable the chaise lounge he’s reclining in, but these duties tend to have worldwide implications.
If an Army helicopter goes down in Iraq while Mr. Obama is getting in some snorkeling, you can bet a Secret Service agent will be donning flippers inside two minutes (and swapping that cunning little ear speaker for a waterproof model).
Also, I doubt you’ve ever had a vacation interrupted because you had to give a press conference from your beach house?
By contrast, when I step outside my office I can banish challenging page layouts and complex editorial arguments to the deepest mental crevices until the next time I rest a palm on my Mac’s mouse.
When I return to work after a week or 10 days, the interval, though brief, is long enough that, for half an hour or so, my desk seems a trifle strange, my fingers feel foreign on the keyboard.
I doubt the president — any president — ever has had such a sensation upon his return to the White House.
What I’m getting at is the level of responsibility.
The higher that level, it seems to me, the more difficult it becomes for a person to indulge in true leisure.
And there is no higher summit, by that measurement, than the Oval Office.
Please don’t mistake my comments, though, as sympathy for Mr. Obama.
He took the job willingly, after all.
And the fringe benefits are considerable.
(Having the Secret Service around to make sure no dogs bother your daughters while they’re wading in the surf, for instance.)
Yet it seems to me disingenuous, and not a little spiteful, for people who enjoy actual carefree vacations, when the toughest choices are whether to order steak or seafood, to chastise the president for pretending to act like a real person for a couple of weeks.
(Although probably some of us would be happier if summer, before it settled in, had handed us a cold beer.)
I was satisfied with the ersatz version we had for quite a while.
The psychological effects from the spring, which was abnormally cool and damp, lingered well past the solstice. Into August I was perpetuating the idea that this wasn’t much of a summer.
Then I had a look at the numbers, which in matters of weather are vastly more reliable than my impressions.
And it turns out that, except for those who truly relish feeling like a clay pot in a kiln, conditions since July 1 deserve to be called summery.
During that nearly two-month span, the temperature has failed to reach 75 degrees — a perfectly pleasant temperature, in my opinion — on just four days. And even on the coolest of those days the high temperature was 71.
Likewise we’ve been spared, at least until this week, a prolonged heat wave.
There were just two 90-degree-plus days in July, compared with the average of 10.
August has been warmer, but it’s also behind on 90-degree days.
It’s been a dry summer, too, even by our arid standards.
Since the solstice we’ve been pelted with a meager .61 of an inch of rain — less than half the average for that period.
The total since July 16 is .01 — the absolute minimum for what the National Weather Service’s considers “measurable” precipitation.
(Those figures are from the Baker City Airport. Thunderstorms, those unpredictable rogues, have drenched certain parts of the county this summer but bypassed the airport’s rain gauge.)
This recent spate of torrid weather, although typical of the season, feels rather like a betrayal. I’d gotten used to the temperate afternoons, when a slight breeze sometimes prompted me to move my chair into a shaft of sunlight instead of sheltering in the shadiest corner of my yard.
The wind has persisted but this week it lost most of its capacity to refresh.
Most, but not all.
Its warm breath does little to soothe skin beaded with sweat. But the breeze, when it comes round to the northwest in the afternoon, brings the pleasant pungency of peppermint oil from the Wards’ distillery on Chico Road.
Along with the aroma of freshly cut alfalfa and the astringent scent of sagebrush in the dawn after a thundershower, this is a quintessential summer smell in Baker County.