It dawned on me recently that, despite all the Septembers I spent in the public education system, I was never asked to write that quintessential back-to-school essay, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” I vaguely recall being relieved about this, because my summers didn’t strike me as newsworthy; they just seemed like regular life minus school. To get good end-of-summer essay material, I thought, you had to be the sort of person who used the word summer as a verb. “We summered in the Rockies, only returning to Minnesota when the bighorn sheep began to scent autumn’s chill in the high mountain passes.” “We summered on Mackinac Island, sailing in regattas by day and feasting around great roaring driftwood fires by night.” The best I could have done was “I summered chez nous, competing in Wiffle ball tourneys, delivering the news of the world to the local gentry, and fishing for the wily bullhead.”
Now that I’m older, I summer in a state of amazement that the heat and the solstice and the dog days come and go as quickly as they do. And I’ve come to regret that I never had to write that essay. It seems like one of those things a person should do in life—especially a person who’s unlikely to ever climb a mountain, sail around the world, or retire with enough money to open a boutique vineyard. So here goes. While I still sort of remember, here’s how I spent my summer vacations.
Shooting off fireworks. On trips to South Dakota, we bought bottle rockets, Roman candles, Western Boys, and Lady Fingers. There was an intense excitement in the look and feel of those cellophane packages with the extravagantly colorful labels. Lay on Ground, Light Fuse, Retire Quickly ~ Use Only Under Adult Supervision. Yeah, right. Where would be the fun in that? We were generally careful and humane, my brother and cousins and I. No toads were harmed in the making of these memories. I did have a Black Cat go off in my hand once, which was a learning experience. You find out how fast the mind can work—how it can call forth images of every newspaper article about blown-off fingers that’s ever been waved in your smug young face, all in the time it takes to hear the explosion and turn your head. You expect to see a sooty quintet of blood-spattered stumps; you’re reflexively framing up a story to tell your parents; you know that this is it, that tragedy has leapt from the realm of the theoretical to the realm of you. And when you realize that you’re okay—which takes a minute, because you’re already becoming your new, maimed self—you immediately light another Black Cat, and another. As many as it takes to get your old life back.
Getting schooled in love’s remorseless rigamarole. After being brutally dumped one June, I zombied around Dinkytown for weeks. Finally, in August, I got up the nerve to ask a coworker out for a drink (I was summering as a nursing assistant at the U of M hospital that year, stocking shelves and running blood samples to the lab, wrapping up deceased patients for delivery to the morgue’s big fridge). At the appointed hour, looking lovely, she met me at Guadalaharry’s Bar—accompanied, to my despair, by two friends and a seeing-eye dog. We ordered three liters of margaritas, and I drank most of them. The dog gave me sympathetic looks throughout the evening, which ultimately ended with me waking up, tragically alone, in my sweltering studio apartment, realizing I was going to be sick, and crawling urgently toward the bathroom. I made it as far as my enormous floor fan, which was set on high, blowing in.
My next relationship began the following summer, on a lush, dark, magical lawn in New Rochelle, New York, in the soft purple glow from a very busy bug zapper. Thousands of insects are dying as our love is being born! sang my romantic heart. There may have been some alcohol involved here, too. My new girlfriend was an ultraliberal vegan fitness buff, en route to a new job in Colorado. I went to visit her there not long after, and she graciously introduced me to her new boyfriend, a tobacco-chewing redneck cowboy. We ate enormous steaks together, and then I took a Greyhound bus home.
Conjugating the verb. I summer; I summered; I will have summered (I hope). I remember sitting on our garage floor in St. Louis Park, reading in a rectangle of sunlight. I was probably 9 at the time. I don’t recall the book, but I can see the texture of the concrete floor, smell the oil drips, feel the warmth and humidity. I understand now that that was some genuine summering. So was watching my dad as he crouched on the back stoop of a rented cabin, hand-feeding table scraps to a skunk while my mom, from the far side of the kitchen, encouraged him to reconsider his estimate of the animal’s social skills. So was spending three months popping wheelies on a riding lawn mower whose blade could not be disengaged. So was falling asleep in my jammies at the drive-in theater, curled up in the back seat of our ’61 Olds, as the insecticide truck rolled by on the gravel and engulfed us in white clouds of useful poison. And so was riding my bike through a hailstorm in July of my 14th year.
On that day, I had deposited my paper-route money in the bank and was heading home when the skies opened up. The hailstones were small, but they stung, and as I pedaled through six inches of water, my T-shirt and jeans sopping, my fenderless 10-speed throwing up huge fantails, some kids on a porch started to tease me. I stopped short, ran my bike up on their front lawn, and screamed myself hoarse at them. I used every obscenity I knew, which was almost as many as I know now—enough to widen their eyeballs, anyway. They scrambled for their mom, and I rode off sobbing. My uncle had died the week before, and I thought I was dealing with it, but apparently I wasn’t, quite.
The other day—it was a real scorcher—I came home from the funeral of a friend and sat down in my backyard to think maudlin thoughts about the brevity of balmy seasons. Then I heard my friend’s voice—probably not for real, but you never know. Listen, she said, and I did. Bird songs, airplanes, cars, yelling children, squirrels in the hostas, wind through leaves, cicadas, bumblebees. Do you see what I mean? she said. I didn’t. She laughed at me. She had a very memorable laugh. She said, There’s always a firecracker exploding in a child’s hand. Sometimes it isn’t tragic. I still don’t get you, I said. She laughed again. Did you really throw up in your fan? Now that, I said, was tragic. At the time.
So anyway, she said, you better get to it. And I did. I sat there and summered my brains out for as long as I could stand the heat, and then I went into the cool, dim house and summered some more.
Contributing editor Jeff Johnson agrees with John Berryman: “Fall comes to us as a prize / to rouse us toward our fate.”