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Finding the ultimate in bargain vacations

On a sun-drenched beach off the central coast near Cayucos, I stood at land's edge with a bucket of sand in my hands. As I waited for the surf at my feet to recede, my sons looked up at me curiously, unsure about this new game.

"Ready?" I said.

"I guess so," Sky said. "What do we do?"

"I'll show you," I said, turning the bucket upside down and slamming it on the wet sand. I lifted it to reveal a sand castle naked against the elements. I fell to my knees and began digging madly.

"OK boys, we've got about 10 seconds until the next wave comes in," I yelled. "Build a wall. Dig a moat. We must protect the castle or the kingdom will die."

The fire drill was on. We dug into the sand and began a frenetic and futile battle with nature. As we played that day, a recurring thought popped into my mind: Why don't we do this more often?

I'd like to report summer vacations have been a regular occurrence for us, but it wouldn't be true. In fact, our family has been intact for more than six years now, and this marked the first time the four of us took a vacation together that didn't involve work. And, apparently, we're not alone on that score. When it comes to relaxing and taking time off work, Americans pretty much suck, according to a recent survey by Expedia.

The average American worker receives 14 paid vacation days a year, a far cry from the typical allotments in France (36 days), Spain (30) and England (24). Worse yet, roughly one-third of American workers don't even use all their vacation time.

The U.S. is unique among developed countries in that it doesn't have laws that mandate paid vacations. Here, it's up to the employer to decide. Meanwhile, in Lithuania, the law ensures workers 28 paid vacation days a year. That's right, even the Lithuanians have it better than we do. In fact, foreigners who don't work as much as Americans live longer, weigh less and enjoy lower divorce rates.

The Expedia survey found more than one-third of Americans said they had too much work to regularly take time off, and 70 percent said even when they do get away, they are distracted by thoughts about work. Another survey found 81 percent of us check e-mail or voice messages while on vacation.

And these numbers are a real shame, too. They reveal how easily the scales can tip in the difficult balancing act between work and family. After all, aren't our families supposed to be a primary reason we work? That's what I kept being reminded of as I played on the beach that day, feeling incredibly relaxed for the first time in too long. Amber was off wandering for miles along the shore, no doubt feeling the same.

As Sky and I repaired the wall, Murphy ran around in ankle-high surf with his arms raised in the air, laughing and yelling, "High tide! High tide" to warn us when a wave headed toward the castle. Sky looked up at me and smiled.

"I know what I want to call this game," Sky said. "I'm going to call it Castle Panic."

Then, sitting there, we both watched as Murphy tripped over a wave and tumbled face-down into the surf. Without missing a beat, he jumped to his feet, spit out some saltwater and raised his arms and shouted, "High tide."

"I've got a better name now," Sky said. "I'm going to call it, 'The Boy Who Cried High Tide.' "

"Yes, I like that one better," I said.

All the while, we kept filling the bucket with sand and strengthening the wall. Then Sky looked over at me with a thoughtful expression.

"You know what, Daddy?" he said. "You played sand castle with us like you said you were going to. You kept your promise this time."

I looked over at him, thoughtfully, but didn't say what I was thinking.

"It's a fun game, buddy," I said. "Who wouldn't want to play Castle Panic?"

He nodded and resumed the dig. As the waves rolled in and out, I watched him, marveling at the contented expression on his face. He looked, well, happy. As for me, I never told him what I was really thinking.

Kept my promise this time? C'mon, I'm not one of those dads, am I? I try like hell not to be, but perhaps it's true. Perhaps too often I let the work and recovery pull me too far away from my family. The bottom line is, it's not what I believe that matters; no, what counts is the impression of the father in the boy's head.

And that got me thinking about something else I'd noticed on this trip: how my kids brighten and gain confidence when I stop what I'm doing -- and I mean really stop -- and listen to them. Because, bringing no work with me, I had nothing to do but relax and interact with them.

It was in those moments I detected another subtlety I didn't like: When they approached me, my first impulse was to pull away. To withdraw, simply out of habit. I know it started long ago with having too much work bouncing around in my head, and not feeling I could spare the time to listen. Sometimes, it's very difficult to converse with young children. The topics can seem pointless, but these talks pave the way for discussions in the future when the topics most certainly will matter. And perhaps these tiny cracks in communication now grow into chasms of later years that cannot be repaired, forever dividing parents and children.

I loathe advice givers by nature, so I'll just close by saying I might not have thought about any of this had we not taken that vacation. And though we spent way more money that we easily could afford, I consider that trip one hell of a bargain.

Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at tphillips@modbee.com or 874-5716.

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