Cold beer, barbecues, baseball, the pool, the beach. These things come to mind but they really are only what summer consists of, which is not the same as what summer means. That “about” is a little bit more subtle and complex.
Here’s my attempt to define some of that about: summer as idea and metaphor.
The older I get, the more I love summer. It’s my favorite season. Love to see it come, hate to see it go. The world pulsates with freshness, not to mention the cold beer, barbecues, baseball, the pool, the beach. There’s more fun to be had, more simple things to enjoy. It’s too hot to care. But sooner or later, you can’t ignore the realization that your number of summers is finite. Sooner or later, you have to care. In summer anything can seem possible, but summer is also evidence that nothing lasts. We never feel as alive as we do in summer, yet the season eventually shows us the ultimate and unavoidable truth of our own mortality.
Everything on this list can be enjoyed or experienced during the rest of the year, but that is part of the point – these are things that transcend the season because they are about what summer is about. Even when you encounter them in the dead of winter, they cause you to think about what summer is about.
So, as the solstice returns again, here is my list of 10 Things About What Summer’s About.
Drive-ins may be gone and you no longer need a movie theater to enjoy air conditioning, but when summer rolls into town you need to see summer movies. In fact, summer now starts in May because that is when Hollywood first introduces “summer” movies – and we owe our cinematic preference calendar to Spielberg’s still amazing, “high-concept” classic, Jaws. In fact, the compact – 3 act – story structure of Jaws has been so studied in Film Schools since the Summer it was released that it now the written in stone template all films must follow, and most do – all Summer films without exception. The harsh, brutal reality of nature is revealed by winter; summer camouflages that reality. The ocean is warm, so irresistibly inviting as it laps along the edges of a beach, where we frolic in the sand or lay on our backs, squinting at the sun.. We splash in the soothing brine, forgetting the hungry monsters living beneath all that salty mystery. Jaws reminds us that nature – and its inevitable indifference to our own wellbeing –always has the last word. The ocean is filled with sudden death and man’s losing battle with nature leaves few survivors and destroys all Pequods. Jaws reminds film goers that giving into suspense then having that suspense fulfilled with sudden movie blood and movie death is pure, absolute cinema. Jaws is about how summer enables nature’s lethal charade. It also defines how – and why – we watch cinema in the summer.
One eats salad all year, but summer is the only time salad doesn’t suck. Summer is when traditional salad vegetables are truly fresh and you can taste their actual flavor. Summer is when lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers are at their most succulent, and in another of the season’s joyous ironies, they are also at their lowest in price. Salad is used to describe any assembly of food items that can be tossed and eaten at room temperature. Salad –sans adjective and served in summer – means lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. Oh sure, add whatever you want – mushrooms, sprouts, croutons – you’re limited only by your imagination and what is available – but the garden salad is the iconic, prototype, “ur” salad. We can order a garden salad any time of the year, except that outside of summer months, and really, outside of July and August, the lettuce is wilted and bland, tomatoes are mushy and acidic and cucumbers are chewy, and anemic. Might as well eat straw When it’s not summer, salad needs other items – bacon bits! –and fancy dressings to be palatable. In the summer, when the produce aisles offer abundant local lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers, then you can eat a salad without any augmentation, even dressing. When these three ingredients are consumed within 24-48 hours of being picked, salad has a succulence unsurpassed by even the best desert. Salad is satisfying and refreshing – something it is certainly not the rest of the year. Salad teaches us a vital lesson about a summer: life is never better than when life is at its peak!
3) The Great Gatsby
What can be said about this great novel that hasn’t already been said? I’ll give it a shot anyway, old sport. I read this short, minimalist novel just about every summer. By the third time or so you can plow through it in a single wonderful sitting. The story takes place during the Summer of 1922 , when the economy was booming, the rich were getting richer, prohibition created wealthy criminals, classes and made semi-outlaws out of everyone who imbibed, and both the rich and the gangsters mingled with each other and with veterans of WWI, who had untreated PTSD and the country they returned to had no interest in trying to fathom the violence they had experienced, all of which, of course, is mere subtext to a melodramatic story of a incredibly rich gangster from the Midwest, who has such undying love for the young woman –Daisy–from the wealthy class who he met just before being shipped to fight in Europe– that in spite of her being married and a mother, he rents a mansion next to her cousin, the story’s narrator. The impossibility of these two being together, and Gatsby’s refusal to accept the impossibility of their togetherness, a delusion born in part out of his American optimism, sets in motion a series of events that end in tragedy. The lines of class cannot be crossed and the events he sets in motion literally backfire, with Daisy’s husband, Tom, inadvertently causing Gatsby’s death in a sublime piece of irony: The man who was cuckold by Tom kills the man who cuckolded Tom. The basic plot may be timeless, as well as seasonless, but Jay Gatz cannot be. He is summer because it is summer when we most believe romance can conquer all. The novel’s story begins two weeks before the previous summer: “the history of the Summer really begins o the evening I drove over there to have dinner with the Tom Buchannan’s,” – note “history of the summer” – and then after Gatsby is dead, and the narrator is preparing to move back to the Midwest (he is living in the Midwest when he begins this story about his summer in the East) “One afternoon in late October I saw Tom Buchanan.” When we get to the end, to the well known green light metaphor of the orgiastic future and the boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past, you ponder the meaning of summer, whose fecund and fertile warmth encourages us to test the limits of our imagination. Summer inspires our boats to continue against the current. My favorite image from Gatsby, which is far less profound, is when Nick is setting up the tea with lemon cakes that is a pretext for Gatsby to reunite with Daisy. Nick has already made reference about how awful his lawn looks – his house is next door to Gatsby’s mansion – “The day agreed upon was pouring rain. At eleven o’clock a man in a raincoat dragging a lawn-mower tapped at my front door and said that Mr. Gatsby sent him over to cut my grass.” You can pick out any sentence in this book and find simple music, but the idea that wealth insists that a lawn be mowed in the rain embodies the conflict at the heart of this masterpiece.
4) Summer Days
Plenty of Bob Dylan songs have summer imagery, and he wrote a song “In The Summer Time,” but Summer Days – a late career ditty, a real rocker when performed live – zeroes in on the inevitability of summer fading away and our stubborn insistence that we can get make it last a little longer. “Summer Days, Summer Nights are Gone/I know a Place where something’s going on,” the narrator sings. Summer is nature’s way of giving us a metaphor for youth. In early summer you are just enjoying the moment and if you can’t get everything done today there’s always tomorrow. Eventually September is here and you’re down to the last inning, the last pitch, the last swing and maybe if you get on base your summer will last a little longer. In Summer Days, the narrator talks about his hogs, the carburetor in his Cadillac car, stands on the tables and gives a toast to the king. He’s having a great time and does not want this life to end. He even quotes Gatsby: “You can’t repeat the past, what you mean you can’t, of course you can,” who tried too hard to hold to youth, to love, to summer, in the great summer novel that still haunts us all. This song is a frantic anthem about the need to make the excitement of – youth, love, fun – i.e. summer! – last a little longer. But the fact it is temporary is what makes excitement so exciting. We can be so willing not to admit to ourselves when youth, love, fun are gone. You always realize too late that summer is ending and by the time that sorry fact dawns on you, autumn is already here.
We wear as little clothing as legally possible from Mid-May through Mid-September. Most of these newly revealed parts of most people, especially after a certain age, are better left unseen, but what fun is that? In our new century though, when summer comes in the tattoos come out. The majority of people get tattoos on places that are covered in cold weather. Those with always visible ink, especially large tats on the neck or hands or face, are compelled to display their hardcore-ness for everyone to see, which probably means they don’t work day jobs like us squares. Let your ink freak flag fly I say. For the majority, the exhibition of tattoos is like green leaves, fireflies and open fire hydrants – a strictly summer phenomenon. In the 21stcentury, as the change of season demands that clothing diminishes and more skin is bared, more of that skin is inked. The summer parade of flesh is now a trippy cartoon of images on the flesh. Unlike, say most paintings (or actual cartoons), these images have no apparent narrative. Sure, we recognize the symbol or word or likeness, but unless we know why that individual selected that individual image, it is just a reference without context. In the summer, tattoos both tell stories and keep secrets. You see what you see, but you just don’t know what that image means to the person beneath the flesh. You know and you don’t know, just like summer.
6) Hissing of Summer Lawns
Joni Mitchell is often chilly. She’s Canadian and many of her songs – e.g. Little Green – seem to take place in the winter. Hissing of Summer Lawns – her first, Jazz-infused blatant casting off of the folk rock yoke – most certainly takes place in the humid materialism of summer in the lower 48. The themes explore the dark sides of summer: deep ennui and destructive behavior. In the title track, the advent of summer causes a lonely, upper class woman realize how trapped she is by her husband: “He put her in a ranch house on a hill/She could see the valley barbecues/From her window sill/See the blue pools in the squinting sun/Hear the hissing of summer lawns.” She stays, even though her life feels empty, just like the “Chippendale that nobody sits in…Still she stays with a love of some kind/It's the lady's choice/The hissing of summer lawns.” Summer is not boredom and angst, but if you are feeling those things summer amplified them with an unbearable focus . The opening track – In France They Kiss on Main Street – shows young people (summer is the Season at this cycle of mortality), using reckless behavior to free themselves from the repression, sexual and otherwise, especially of women, of the 1950s. But life doesn’t turn out to be as happy as those young kisses for the whole town to see, and summer imagery persists throughout to highlight her disappointment: The Jungle Line – “Screaming in a ritual of sound and time/Floating, drifting on the air conditioned wind,” In Harry’s House/Centerpeice, another sad, feverish portrayal of a woman trapped by a wealthy man, has – “Heat waves on the runway” , an insect that only appears in Summer as a metaphor –“A helicopter lands on the Pan Am roof/Like a dragonfly on a tomb,” and Harry’s recalls an erotic image of his young wife from a summer long ago – “He drifts off into the memory/Of the way she looked in school/With her body oiled and shining/At the public swimming pool.” To say this record is about summer is misstating the point. Summer is the foundation, the starting point of a singular vision about why we sometimes feel so uneasy living with what our life turns out to be. We realize that in summer so we can change things by the time it’s our autumn. Maybe we decide not to change things because autumn is so close. We realize that if we give up our ennui we’ll have nothing.
7) Mid Summer Nights Dream
Harold Bloom says this play is Shakespeare’s“visualization of an ideal summer,” and in spite of mostly crappy films and high school English courses, the comedy in this play still feels fresh. Read it again and you will laugh. We all know the story: Robin Goodfellow – Puck – on orders of the king of the faeries, Oberon to use a magic flower to make Titania queen of the faeries to fall in love with an ass. Bottom – the guy who is turned into the ass – is part of a troupe performing a play about a wedding in honor of the royal nuptials. Puck causes further mischief by using the flower to cause a set of couples to fall in love with their opposites, which disrupts the marriage of the king of Athens, whose pending nuptials open the play. The characters and their unions and disunions with the objects of the love are different variations on the same theme of coupledom. Shakespeare shows love feels so objective, but can only be manifested subjectively. Shakespeare show how arbitrary romantic love can seem, and how fleeting. Summer increases the potential for infatuations, and what makes the infatuations so disruptive is lust. The summer fling, the summer crush, what is it about the season? Everything is ripe. More of the body is visible. The nights are shorter, thus dreams more intense. Nature is in heat. We mate. Lust is unavoidable, giving into impulse more enticing and seemingly more justifiable. When lust gets in the heart, it’s all the mind can think about and all the allegories –and Elizabethan proprietaries – cannot obscure, much less prevent, the heated desires Shakespeare explores in this drama masquerading as farce. When it’s summer, “reason and love keep little company...”
8) Europe 72
Even the Grateful Dead haters admit what the lovers always knew – Europe 72 is one of the greatest rock & roll albums in the canon. A genuine classic. This 40th anniversary year, Rhino released every concert of this famous tour, a gesture as excessive as the band and its diehard fans. Europe 72 is a kind of best of the band at a very strong period. There is a lot of summer here: Sugar Magnolia, is a revved up summer idyll – “Sugar Magnolia/Blossoms Blooming/ Heads All Empty but I don’t Care/Saw My Baby Down By the River/Knew She had to come up soon for air” From the road trip anthem – Truckin – to all these weird stories such as Mr. Charlie, who shoots shot guns at strangers, Cumberland Blues about miners, Brown Eyed Woman, (bootleggers), as well as tremendous covers of Hank Williams and Leadbelly. Truckin and its jam is a well known Grateful Dead recording, but the song itself is like the album, where Jack & Neil hit the road and discover what’s left of old, weird America. China Cat Sunflower – a splendid piece of surrealism – is another Summer Song with Hunter at his most impenetrable: “Comic book colors on a violin river/crying Leonardo words/from out a silk trombone” – that flows via an amazing piece Bill Monroe meets John Coltrane jamming, evolving into Goin Down the Road Feeling Bad, a song Woody Guthrie recorded first, but Garcia heard in John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath (the dustbowl was a summer disaster). An argument can be made that you have to be high to fully appreciate the Grateful Dead, and when they sing, what a long strange trip it’s been, we know what kind of trip they meant. Well, sooner or later everybody graduates the Acid Test even if they never took acid. This record is influenced, and really about, the psychedelic experience, and more specifically, that experience in the gleeful mysticism of summer, when the mind tends to wander into multi-layered, and wildly free associations (i.e., Alice in Wonderland & the Joads), and all the new colors seem bright and vibrant. Europe 72 is also about a desire you get, especially in early summer, for the psychedelic. You feel good, the sun warms your face and you say to yourself, this would be a great day to trip. Even if you never have dropped or it has been years since you have dropped and would never do again such a thing, that thought crosses your mind. It’s not a serious consideration. You are surprised you are even considering it. Yet there it is, for one fleeting moment, a wistful prospect. Europe 72 is about summer’s inherent desire for psychedelic experience. Some summer days are so nice you say to yourself this would be a perfect day to trip.
9) Feast of the Assumption
Mysticism – pondering the essence of reality, the coexistence of the material and the immaterial worlds – just seems to be a reverie more likely to unfold in the summer. Your mind seems more open to more possibilities this time of year; sooner or later those possibilities turn to the nature of reality. The Feast of the Assumption, a Roman Catholic Holy Day of Obligation, but celebrated by many other denominations, takes place August 15th , questions what many think is the nature of reality. If you think about the Assumption, speculate on its likely roots in pagan Europe – when crops are being tended to, about a month before harvest begins – you cannot ignore the influence summer on the development of this mystical theology. Summer is at the essence of mysticism. The basic premise is the Virgin Mother, (mom of You Know Who), being born without original sin and dying with any sin of omission, commission or conscience, was, at her death (which there is no historical record of, nor is it mentioned in the New Testament), is “assumed” into Heaven. Her son Ascended (Ascension Thursday) into heaven, indicating a lifting. The meaning of assumed though indicates something different, the material becoming the immaterial. What is the nature of substance – we do not see God, but God created substance –is God substance or just in all substance? Once assumed, was the body of Mary still material, but just in a different place or was this transformation even more mystical, that the difference between the substantial and the insubstantial is just a mortal conceit, the supreme being sees no division. These are issues theologians ponder and discuss during summer break. Pope Pius XII explains the Assumption: “that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” The Assumption, in statuary and paintings, has Mary depicted with a flowing robe usually with cherubs at her feet, accompanying the assuming process. The philosophical concepts underlying the way the incarnation is depicted, to faithful and non-believer alike, is an extravagant flight of imaginative thought, only possible, like the feast itself, at the height of summer.
10) Girls in Their Summer Clothes
Being from New Jersey, I would be amiss not to give Bruce a summer shout out. What’s more summer in our state than going down the shore, having Bruce blasting on the speakers as the Parkway exit numbers shrink into double digits? While the sound of Bruce has invoked summer for now two generations of listeners, most of his beach songs take place during winter when he was an outsider in the most outsiders of worlds, the shore at winter, where isolation and anxiety ride the waves. We may think of Bruce as being summer, but that is only in sound not meaning. A newer song, Girls in Their Summer Clothes, is about how the season mends a broken heart heal. You may have been done a wrong, but at least you have the summer and friends. This sentiment is perhaps why suicide rates are so high in winter. The summer here is probably early or late – “breeze crosses the porch”, “cool of the evening light”, and the narrator, Bill says “Jacket's on, I'm out the door” – the heat isn’t unbearable. The song portrays a neighborhood at dusk “the street lights shine” with a living is easy Americana feel – “Kid's rubber ball smacks/Off the gutter 'neath the lamp light.” Bill, who initially notices “Lovers they walk by/Holdin' hands two by two” goes to his Frankie’s Diner, where “Shaniqua brings a coffee and asks "fill?”And says "penny for your thoughts now my boy Bill" (dig how he rhymes that couplet and listen to the internal syllables in those two lines). Bill Responds: “She went away/She cut me like a knife.” But on this pleasant summer evening, his anger doesn’t linger, his broken heart is healing by just seeing “The Girls in their Summer Clothes, Pass me by.” Summer is prone to inspire sweet melancholy. At one point, Bill says: “Hello beautiful thing/Maybe you could save my life,” and he seems unthreatening, isn’t even obnoxious in what I take as a line he tries out on one of the women passing by. So, it’s summer and you’re alone and all you see are either couples in love and women dressed scantily who won’t give you the time of night, but you know, the weather’s nice, the waitress is kind. It doesn’t hurt today as much as it did yesterday. The song ends with the E Street Chorus, a thick texture of Jersey Shore Sound, with Springsteen’s pop music choir of La la la la – echoing so many Summer top 40 hits. After you get this sweet melancholy portrayal of a lonely guy who is getting through another summer night, getting on with his life, and having him realize that getting through one step at a time is enough for now, Springsteen reminds of his ever constant themes of friendship and community with a simple, wordless chorus, backed by the E-Street band, in full glory. Their familiar, multilayered swing eases your pain. Thanks guys, it’s not a bad summer after all. There are a lot of pretty girls out tonight.
Bonus: James Lee Burke/Dave Robicheaux
I think I’m like most, lighter fare is interspersed among my reading throughout the year. Still, there is the summer book concept. Maybe one wants to read more entertaining novels when you think of the beach and summer and summer beach reading. You want to relax and escape. Probably the “pop novelist” I follow most devotedly these days is James Lee Burke and his Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux. I’ve enjoyed his other books – his literary short story collection Jesus Out to Sea is recommendable – but the Robicheaux books are by far his best writing. But, in addition to being detective fiction, thus lighter fare thus summer reading, he releases Robicheaux books in the summer. In fact, one is due this July: an immediate sequel is the rumor. While the detective gets banged up in all the books, usually the books end with some time passage and a coda of sorts, a reflection of what transpired in the roughly 300 pages prior. He goes on with his life on the final page. The Glass Rainbow, which came out last year, ended suddenly – oh the bad guys are finally subdued, but Robicheaux and his partner, Clete Purcell, limp away, they have taken bullets. There was no coda. They ended with the wounds still bleeding. An immediate sequel has heretofore been unheard of, but there is no way he can continue the Robicheaux saga without it being immediate. A veteran who served in Vietnam in the mid-60s, Robicheaux has to be close to or in his 70s, although I think he lost about ten years through poetic license a couple of novels back. Except for one set in Montana (?), they all take place in Louisiana, where let’s face it, it is always summer. Robicheaux lives and works in the swamps of New Iberia, although most crimes are rooted in the Gomorrah of New Orleans, it’s always hot and sticky and sweaty. Robicheaux, an ex-alcoholic who is always thirsty, always dreaming of the beads of sweat along the sides of the brown glass of a bottle of Jax (a regional lager). Burke is the best writer of descriptive sentences alive. From Heaven’s Prisoners: “I was just off Southwest Pass, between Pecan and Marsh Islands, with the green, white capping water of the Gulf Stream to the south and the long, flat expanse of the Louisiana coastline behind me – which is really not a coastline at all but instead a huge wetlands area of saw grass, dead cypress strung with wisps of moss, and a maze of canals and bayous that are choked with Japanese water lilies whose purple flowers audibly pop in the morning and whose root systems can wind around your propeller shaft like cable wire.” See, when summer comes all America is Louisiana. The good Knight is doing everything possible to keep it together – he’ll save the day, but it’s never easy, especially in such relentless humidity.