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An August Quandary: Return to Work Or Play On

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.

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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.

Consider this classic example: Last Saturday, on a rocky stretch of coast north of Boston, a man dressed for a swim sat cross-legged on a beach towel, intently tapping away on his laptop, seemingly oblivious of the cloudless sky and clear sea around him.

From sand in the PowerBook to shorts in the office, the lines between play and work seem shakily drawn these days. Employees want time off, to be sure, but many need some reassuring sense that they're still a valuable player on the corporate team.

And who can blame anyone for such concern? Downsizing has created a new wariness about job security. Workers worry that being out of sight will put them out of the boss's mind.

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As downsizing forces growing numbers of longtime employees to accept golden parachutes and "voluntary" layoffs that are anything but voluntary, it also requires many people to confront the prospect, however temporary, of life without work. For all the cheerleading prose written about the joys of leisure, early retirement remains, for the most part, a dreaded prospect, stripping a worker not only of a paycheck but of a sense of purpose and activity.

Many would agree with the German playwright Carl Zuckmayer, who writes that "the only lasting kind of felicity consists in consciousness of productivity."

To be an ant or to be a grasshopper - that is the question of the month of August. And the answer is not to carry around high-tech gadgets while wearing a bathing suit. It's all too confusing - trying to do one's corporate duty while the sun turns the world into a golden playground.

August serves as a reminder of the difference between simply making a living and making a well-rounded life. Maybe Europeans have the right idea: Declare August a lost cause, work-wise, and put the whole country on hold until after Labor Day.

August is a seasonal tease.... From sand in the PowerBook to shorts in the office, the lines between play and work seem shakily drawn these days.

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