Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, June 22, 2014
It’s 1971. Summer is so inconceivably, relentlessly simple.
Once the last bell of the last class rings, and the middle-school warzone, temporarily peace-treatied, recedes from view, a mental movie screen begins at once to unfurl, to slowly reveal the simple title of this particular movie, in 4,000 pt black-on-white American Typewriter bold: SUMMER.
And then? Then the camera starts to roll on yet another brief but endless quarter-year odyssey. It is riveting — and, yet, about nothing in particular. There is no arc, no 1-2-3, no crushing conflict and eventual redemption. It pans and it zooms lazily and without focus, like the flight pattern of a supersized butterfly. The soundtrack, a medley of top hits, is spliced with traditional barking dogs, squealing girls, and the sound of backyard sprinklers and carwash hose spray.
Why is the nothing of summer so juicy? The fact is, we never go out to eat, or to events; we never go on normal vacations, or even take day trips unless we’re on a mission to u-pick fruit destined for jars and the freezer. Like most of the other kids in the neighborhood, I don’t go to summer camp or even craft camp. We don’t have festivals, or duck races, or parades on Main Street, or baseball games to watch, or free music or swim lessons or tennis lessons or even moms who take us places.
What we have is Cascadia, our street, with its big houses filled (for the most part) with big Catholic families. We have glum Seattle rain and cloud cover interspersed with sunny days that knock our little white crew socks from Pay’n Save off. We have a view of Mount Rainier in one direction and Mount Baker in the other. We have kick the can and flag football and Barbara Swain’s basement for dancing. We have the ice cream man’s music box on wheels, his popsicles and Creamsicles and Drumsticks, and the sheer mystery of him as he tinkles off into the distance, inscrutable, backlit by the sun. We have our neighborhood gang of 13 or 14 kids who meet and boast their various versions of nothing much. We do barbecue only rarely: steaks on two little twin hibachi grills my father loves. We have streetlights that plink on our curfew and a few black-and-white TV shows we like well enough to fiddle with a nob called Vertical Hold that keeps the picture steady.
We have several decks for sunning, not on anything as civilized as a deck chair, but on a two-bath-towel tarp, laid directly onto the tar-beach surfaces. I listen to KJR, channel 95, on my beloved solid-state transistor radio, and wait for favorite songs like a bird waiting for the cage door to pop open. If it gets too hot, there’s Lake Washington, right across the boulevard. If it gets too cold, there are gothic romances by Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt.
But here is the secret of summer: that delicious, do-nothing vortex is only fully and completely accessed by a portal called Boredom. A word that confounds every single mother in the neighborhood. A word they all dislike enormously — even forbid — because they hear “I’m bored” as complaint instead of what it really is: a teen mantra in the temple of the now. They don’t get the power of boredom in the summer story. How it fills us up with longing, and how the fumes of that longing distil into the heady bee-buzz of days, a buzz that vibrates our blood up half a thermometer degree.
In this hot-blooded state, which feels both lazy and anxious, we wait for stuff to happen. We wait in our Levi’s and white Converse shoes, our shorts and halter tops and rubber flip-flops and bathing suit bottoms and sweatshirts. We wait on stoops, on steps, in tree perches, on deck chairs. We wait with our dripping popsicles and our sometimes grass-stained feet, picking at the threads of our cut-off jeans, and quietly getting older, hormones rising like sap, ripening like berries in the hot sun.
Nothing much happens, for the most part — until it does. Once that fruit of the boredom tree is so ripe it’s about to fall, the nothing of summer so big it throbs, something inevitably occurs. And that thing, whatever it is, is what we say happens on our summer vacation. Only, really, it is everything else.