The Dead of SummerPrint
What to do on this sweltering day …
By Phillip Lopate
July 1, 2016
It’s the dead of summer, and my brain shuts down. I’m hot, I think. Then … I’m hot! It’s so hot. I think I’ll lie down on the couch for a bit and read. A good thing that the couch is large enough to accommodate my six-foot, prone body. No sooner do I arrange the pillows and read a few pages than my eyes close. I am taking a nap, a summer nap, which is generally the only kind I take. I don’t know why I can’t seem to nap in any other season, though everyone tells me it’s good for one’s health, no shame in it whatsoever. I agree, but unless a drowsiness brought on by heat overtakes me and forces me toward the solace of the couch, I can’t do it. A summer nap is delicious. I feel my mouth coated with gummy substance, and I surrender to somnolent passivity, awakening only to the street sounds coming through the window. There is nothing I can do for the moment to make the world a better place, to improve my family’s condition, or to articulate intriguing, counterintuitive insights that might someday adorn my writing. In fact, I am blissfully inarticulate. For most of the year, being a college professor, I am obliged to answer my students’ questions, to think on my feet and play Mr. Encyclopedia. The upside, for those like myself who toil in academia, is summer vacation, when for three-and-a-half months I can be stupid. In the course of daily conversation with my wife and daughter, I fail to finish my sentences, trail off, mumble; it seems not worth the bother to shape my thoughts into crisp formations. This maddens them, rightly so. They think I am turning into a slug.
Of course I read a lot in the summer—provided I can keep my eyes open. Charles Lamb once wrote, “When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.” How true. We writers are supposed to be thinking for ourselves all the time, which would be admirable indeed if it were possible. Instead, just to get the old brain going, I often thumb a ride on another’s thought-currents. If I am on deadline to write a book review, I sit on the toilet paging though The London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, Bookforum, The American Scholar—whatever comes easiest to hand in the pile of periodicals beside the bathroom sink—just to remind myself of the worldly, expert tone I am expected to affect. Then I write a few good pages and—take a nap.
What if I have nothing to say? The challenge of keeping a blog such as this one, in my view, is to write precisely about nothing, and somehow fill up 500 words with improvised filigree, like a jazz pianist playing block chords and waiting for the star saxophonist to return onstage. Flaubert dreamed of writing a book about nothing, no plot or characters, just the sheer charm of prose style. I am no Flaubert, so I have to pretend at least to follow a topic. Let’s see, where were we? Summer patterns. I tend to take a shower daily in the summer, because otherwise I will feel sticky or get heat rashes, whereas in the winter I can go two or three days in a row without showering … But you don’t need to know that. It’s of no consequence to anyone except my wife. The frequency of my showering may constitute the outer limit of what is permissible to write about in a blog.
Okay, then, searching for other summer behaviors, I eat lots of corn and peaches and drink lemonade. Beer becomes essential. When I drink a cold beer in the evening, I feel myself expanding with gratitude, like a thirsty plant watered by a garden hose on a timer. I also watch a good deal of baseball, and if my team, the Mets, are having a mediocre year, then my summer turns into a gloomy one. Fortunately, this year they have a chance.
I would just like to conclude by saying that if this blog had been written during the winter months, the sentences would be far more elegant, the analysis deeper, and the vocabulary more surprising.
Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.