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Summer is a time to relax and have fun. Let's not make it another long to-do list to be tackled.

I have on my desk a special section of The Wall Street Journal, “The Off Duty 50,” listing half a hundred things a diligent vacationer can do to make the most of summer.

I’ve resisted reading its suggested blueprint for the season in full, feeling not quite up to treating these torpid months as a mountain to be scaled, not an interlude to be savored.

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Sampling “The Off Duty 50” can seem a little bit like cramming for the ACT, so palpable is its air of unalloyed ambition.

There’s a tutorial on proper swimming attire, which mentions a pair of trunks that cost $375. For $13,800, you can tour the subarctic this summer, earning some obvious bragging rights around the office water cooler. The editors also recommend a relative bargain, a $420 watch, headlined with a summertime boast, “I Upgraded My Time Management.”

Maybe I’ll sound churlish for mentioning that the real point of summer is to elude both time and management for a while, indulging the temporary illusion that we’re no longer leashed to the clock and calendar. Even so, the urge to colonize the season as just another occasion to burnish a résumé runs deep in our national culture.

It probably all started with those dreary “What I Did This Summer” essays our teachers once assigned, forcing us to justify weeks away from campus as somehow useful, edifying, exciting, worthwhile.

Since dissent is also something of an American tradition, I’d like to say that in summer — especially in summer but also in the rest of life — some of the best memories don’t cost much and aren’t highly planned.

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The other day, for example, my 18-year-old son and some of his friends quickly dreamed up a picnic, throwing a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into a sack with some apples. They drove to a park they’d never visited, enjoying nothing more noteworthy than each other’s company.

After their outdoor lunch, they combed the aisles of a nearby flea market, amused by the endless oddities collecting dust on the tables. My son bought an old wind chime with the loose change in his pocket — a souvenir of a day that had digressed from one hour to another with no clear list of Things to Do. The memory of that day will help sustain him, I think, when he’s in college this fall, beavering through quadratic equations and the hundred other urgencies of autumn.

My wife and I had a similar experience on the Fourth of July. Too busy to think about the holiday until it arrived, we invited another couple over on the spur of the moment. We barbecued and swam, two diversions that blessedly took attention away from a house we hadn’t prepared for company.

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It was a grand time, one made all the better for being improvised. Summer’s nicest gifts, it turns out, are usually not the ones we go to seek.


Email Danny Heitman at dheitman@theadvocate.com.