Cure for the Summer Follies
I was in the checkout line holding two cartons of gourmet chocolate ice cream behind a woman with a fully loaded shopping cart. This was the eve of Labor Day weekend, just another broiling day in paradise.
"Boy, oh boy, where did summer go?" she sighed.
For an instant I thought she was speaking to the tabloid magazine rack or possibly to someone using one of those tiny telephones that ride in your ear and allow you to look like someone holding a conversation with a large invisible rabbit.
But then she glanced at me, obviously expecting some kind of response.
"Good question. It sure flew by," I agreed, hoping she might invite me to slip ahead of her in the line since all the other lines were crowded, too.
"Unfortunately, I don't remember a more stressful summer," she added. "Nothing we planned really worked out. My husband quit playing golf because it was too hot. All he did was sit around the house all day fussing at the news and watching his stocks decline. Our air conditioning quit in July, and I had to have emergency gall bladder surgery in August. Now we've got three sets of kids coming for Labor Day, and I have no idea where to put them all. They eat like an army on the march."
It's amazing what some people will tell perfect strangers in a crowded grocery store line, though by now you've perhaps guessed I'm far from perfect.
She blushed, hoisting three industrial-sized jars of spaghetti sauce onto the conveyor.
"Sorry to vent," she apologized. "I just haven't been able to do that all summer. And now we have this big hurricane about to hit! I'm frazzled."
"That's OK," I said, "it was a pretty crazy summer."
I smiled and shrugged. It hadn't been the easiest of summers, in fact. A planned family camping trip to the Outer Banks hadn't come off as planned, and a weekend in the mountains with good friends had to be postponed. The college tuition bills were much larger than expected, and my terrace garden gave up the ghost around the start of August due to the staggering heat. My golf game wilted, too.
To top things off, my wife had just issued her annual review of our summer dietary habits. The upshot wasn't good.
Beginning first thing Tuesday morning, life would be carrot sticks and low-fat yogurt until further notice, officially marking the end of ice cream season in our house, which might soon have me conversing with a large invisible rabbit.
That's why I'd made a dash to Harris Teeter, one final grab at frozen happiness before the start of the Great Husband Purge. Some people fast and do yoga to regain spiritual balance in an uncertain universe. I eat chocolate ice cream.
"I remember when summer was so simple," the woman said. "Picnics and sitting on the porch. Everything was slower. We went to the beach, read books. The most exciting thing that ever happened was a sunburn."
She was describing life in a lemonade commercial. I was nostalgic for a summer like that, too, though I couldn't recall having one since I was about 15 years old. The vast majority as an adult were sticky, frantic affairs where you sometimes came home from a family vacation feeling like you needed one.
True, we'd had some great camping trips with our kids and occupied a couple of beach houses on Southern islands that gave us nice sense of isolation. A ferry trip across windy Pamlico Sound would live in immortality. But one swell week away rarely made up for a summer that always seemed to fall short of plans and expectations.
My favorite moments of homebound summer were watering my vast Maine garden in the peaceful calm of dawn's early light and playing whiffle ball with the kids in the yard at dusk, batting mosquitos that were large enough to punch back.
During the two decades we lived on the coast of Maine, in fact, we learned to avoid going into town during late July and all of August, when the tourist occupation was at its highest and the consumption rate was at peak frenzy. The lines were impossible, and local restaurant prices were double what they would be just one week after Labor Day.
"It's three months of hell followed by nine months of bliss," Old Man Day used to tell me with a toothless grin at his roadside lobster shack. "No pain, no gain in the bank account."
Another beloved coot - a retired distinguished professor of history I sometimes played golf with - used to grumble that summer was the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the American people - a relic of our abandoned agricultural past that only gave folks the illusion of relaxation, a conspiracy foisted on the public by bored civil servants and zealous teachers' unions.
"Real Americans prefer to work. It's bred into us," he declared. "My parents and your grandparents never took a vacation day in their lives. Paid vacations were a post-war phenomenon. That's why most folks can never really relax and enjoy themselves. We have a cultural memory that detests being a slacker!
"Summer goes against our best survival instincts. So we schedule vacations like business conferences, because we're secretly guilty about not being on the job, missing the big promotion or the office gossip. Nasty business, summer vacations. They should be made illegal or at least made optional."
This well-informed old boy was the first to point out to me that the crime rate and political chicanery often increase substantially during the "slower" summer months - when homes are empty and governmental watchdogs are missing from their posts. He argued that Americans are by nature far more argumentative during the summer simply because we're conflicted about our desires and obligations.
"This country was formed on a broiling hot day in July, after weeks of violent argument," he reminded me. "It's a miracle it came together at all. Our biggest protest matches, race riots and absurdly theatrical political conventions always happen in summer, for a good reason. Half of America is bored to death, the other half is crazy with pent-up work guilt. The result is what I call the 'summer follies.' The only cure is to vanish somewhere safe until Labor Day!"
Follies of 2010
As I stood in line with my melting Labor Day ice cream, I suddenly remembered his theory about the summer's follies.
The summer of 2010 would certainly fit his theory pretty nicely. It began with an oil leak in the Gulf that continued to empty millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf, wiping out thousands of livelihoods and endangering the nation's most fragile and productive coastal environment. Our laid-back president took his own sweet time kicking fannies and taking names over this outrage - and probably guaranteed he'll be collecting permanent vacation pay following the next presidential election. As August dawned, the well was finally plugged. But go ask a Gulf shrimper about summer stress and you may get a gill-net thrown over your head. On second thought, better not.
Next came radio guru Dr. Laura's intemperate use of the "n" word 11 times in five minutes on her syndicated radio show, the resignation of a black administrator in the U.S. Department of Agriculture falsely accused of hating white farmers, and the sudden eruption of anti-Muslim sentiment over the proposed mosque and cultural center being planned for a few blocks from ground zero.
However one comes down on this legitimate and emotionally charged issue - which has been happily fanned by cable network mouthpieces for both political extremes in this country, the xenophobic far right and the clueless far left - it's certain the only winners will be the happy Jihadists who view this as a windfall for recruiting homegrown terrorists. "Nothing pleases us more than to see how America treats its Muslim citizens," said a spokesman for the Taliban resistance in Afghanistan, where our sons and daughters are dying every day for a country that has no citizens with rights of any kind. Last week a cab driver in Manhattan was stabbed by a self-described "Christian" filmmaker for answering the question "Are you a Muslim?" in the affirmative.
Bizarre as it seems, even the president felt the need to answer this question this summer, with perhaps the strangest press release since the White House memo on Monica Lewinsky's spotted dress. On the upside of the equation, the summer follies also brought us a pair of disgraced politicians who refuse to leave the stage without a good fight - and maybe a reality show of their own. Faced with 13 counts of violating House ethics rules, New York's unsinkable Charlie Rangel threw himself a huge 80th birthday bash and defiantly declared "This ain't no funeral" to his own party bosses. Not to be outdone, fallen governor and Dondi-impersonator Rod Blagojevich who came one juror's vote short of being convicted of racketeering, held a press conference to celebrate his hung jury and promised to someday run again for governor - or maybe president.
Sadly, on the other hand, in the midst of all this debate and drama, underscored by a record summer heat and a public that's reached the boiling point over its own elected officials, our once-reliable tabloid celebrities abandoned their obligation to keep us all entertained with their witless publicity stunts and incomprehensible natterings.
Sweet Lindsay Lohan, alas, has been cooling her heels in jail, and Brad and Angie have been scarily quiet. Where is Kate Gosselin when a bored nation needs her most? True, the "Jersey Shore" is kind of good, honest, greasy fun - but Snooki Polizzi's just no Kate, even in a string bikini three sizes too small. Fortunately, Paris Hilton came out of seclusion in the nick of time this week, getting busted for having someone else's sack of cocaine in her purse. It's only for the third time, though. Give her a break.
Sick of Summer Follies
With America's brainless celebs on summer hiatus, however, a country desperate for simple summer distraction was left to rely upon lame, loud television game shows in which contestants humiliated themselves by being violently knocked off a giant toy-set obstacle course into mud pits or simply made out with strangers in pitch-black rooms. Some danced, while others lit their hair on fire, proving America had little or no talent.
A few tried to roll ping-pong balls into baskets or balance pencils on their noses for fleeting fame and the mortgage money, confirming to any space aliens considering a hostile takeover of earth that the fourth planet from the sun could probably be had for a nice Taco Bell burrito and maybe a complimentary subscription to US Magazine.
Those 33 miners stuck down a mine shaft in Chile, it occurred to me as I finally got my turn in line to pay for my half-melted chocolate ice cream, have no idea how fortunate they were to miss the summer follies of 2010. At least they have good food, video games and lots of nice quiet time in a cool place to reflect on how great it will be to get back to work once they're freed around Christmas.
Speaking of freedom, neo-Buddhist Tiger Woods has to feel like a man relieved of a heavy load of dodgy karma - or just $100 million?
Dare we mention eggs with salmonella, anchor babies, the lady who dumped the cat in the garbage or America's newest craze - bedbugs!
Probably not. I may be sick of the summer follies, but I'm not that crazy.
For the record, I took my premium chocolate ice cream straight home and sat on our back terrace with my good friend, the large invisible rabbit, enjoying a big bowl of frozen happiness before the hurricane and Great Husband Purge both hit, trying my best not to think about Snooki Polizzi in a string bikini or the dreadful carrot sticks coming my way.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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