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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Summertime blues

by Philip Martin | July 6, 2021 at 3:01 a.m.

The marketers would have us believe summer is some kind of reprieve, a time for guilt-free mindlessness when we are licensed to read dumb books and watch dumb movies (as if we need their permission to push away from our responsibilities). It is packaged and sold to us as family fun time, the perfect season to strike out in an RV for the edges of the country, to go look at the oceans.

Americans invented this idea of summer being the most fun. Like most invented ideas, it is a filthy lie.

Summer is a cruel season, a relentless bully in a Hawaiian shirt with a machete and a smile of gold and pulp. Electric meters spin, grass fries, and squirrels go mad. They bite at each other as they scramble through the trees.

There are people who do not believe that puny humans could do anything to cause the Earth's climate to change, and it may well be that the worst we can do is to hasten the end of the Anthropocene. Maybe the world will eventually shake us off like a bad cold and recover its natural equilibrium. Maybe the fever we're feeling is just its way of getting better.

Not that its that hot here. We've only touched the middle 90s in Arkansas, and last Thursday, after the rain, it felt almost cool for a while, before it started to feel humid. But there's an anomalous high pressure center sitting on the chest of the Pacific Northwest, driving temperatures to ridiculous extremes. It was 116 degrees in Portland last week, 108 in Seattle. Across the border in British Columbia it hit 121.

And New York and Boston both hit 100 degrees last week.

It's almost enough to make you feel grateful for the white-sky Arkansas summer. So far, we've only had our usual.

I used to be good with heat and go running in Phoenix on 100-degree days. I still like the 90s for golf; it doesn't matter so much with the new balls, but there used to be a certain butter-hearted feeling that accompanied a pure strike of a 100-compression Titleist Black on a hot day, a little rabbity zing that added five to eight yards' carry.

It's a cliché to say it's not the heat but the humidity (sometimes it's the heat) that makes it so uncomfortable. But there's something else too. I can take the heat, I can breathe through a wet dishrag, but I am annoyed by the 4k Blu-ray high definition of summer--the way the air feels sterilized and objects pop out at you in crisp delineation as though you're looking at the world through a hawk's eye.

In summer the sun becomes a raging chemical sore in the sky, an angry white wound in the universe too awful to look at. Summer burns off the comfortable delusions in which we wrap ourselves--it lets us see things too clearly.

They say the heat can make you crazy, but what it really does is melt away civility, exposing the craziness that has always been there at the nut. It takes the insistent heat and glare of summer to strip the containing layers.

Manners are the first to go. Our higher faculties have the sense to shut down and leave us muttering and thwarted, struggling with a bottle opener, thrashing in our beds trying to locate a patch of cool cotton. Summer makes us stupid and petty, and sometimes the best thing that we can do is stay out of one another's way.

It feels like we are tip-toeing away from this pandemic (though don't look at the numbers if you want to be reassured), so at least we shouldn't feel bad about wanting to stay inside. Maybe if you feel ambitious you can mix up a batch of mojitos or a Pimm's Cup. Summer kills appetites and murders creativity. Columnists pull out lists and rerun old pieces. It is the time of slim paperbacks with shiny covers, when the movie houses thrum with the loud and dull. (Though I am looking forward to "Black Widow.")

People who like pools might like summer. And kids in school certainly like summer. Why not? I didn't mind summer when all I had to worry about was whether Roberto Clemente would win the batting title or if crafty lefty Ronnie Pelitier would strike me out three times and pitch another no-hitter against us in the championship game on Friday evening.

I still looked forward to summer when I got to college, even if I was going to summer school and working, it wasn't so bad. Those were the days when the promise of a Schlitz tall boy and a ride to the lake with a couple of girls from Louisiana Tech was enough to keep us hustling for that minimum wage.

It was summer that taught me I wasn't willing to work outdoors. Even though you could make better money building houses than clerking in a sporting goods store, I didn't last as a roofer. And when my friend Billy got a summer job at a glass plant making $12 a hour (big money for unskilled labor in the '70s) I was interested until I found out he came home blackened with soot and with singed eyebrows, and that sometimes he would lose eight or 10 pounds during his shift.

Once I figured out I couldn't throw well enough or run fast enough to be the infielder I'd always planned on being, I was going to have to find a profession that would allow for sitting in an air-conditioned office during June, July and August. I've still got that, though the office will be is in the house for at least a little while longer.

And the house is cool enough, and there are dogs--smart enough not to want to go out in this heat, though they do for a while, mostly to humor their addled two-leggers--and other diversions, and certainly nothing to complain about. It looks like rain today; a few doors down, a crew is framing up a house. All of us inside workers should count our blessings.

Summer provides us with excuses; it is not the time to begin a project or to think about re-dedicating one's life. Summer is a time to hide out, to wear dark glasses and seek the shade. To watch Shohei Ohtani as he pursues the greatest baseball season ever.

One works slower in the summer, if at all. It is not the time to be hard on yourself; it is OK to let the grass grow up to tickle your ankles. It is OK to slump--a steaming heap--under a ceiling fan in the middle of a Saturday afternoon.

One needn't be so industrious or diligent in the summertime. The readers understand. It's summer out there too.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

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