Ode to Summer

[From the Rough Draft archive, July 17, 2005]

You could make a case for any of the seasons.

You could argue that autumn is the most evocative, that its palette is the most pleasing to the eye. Autumn is the only season in which the air is described as having a snap. Autumn has the bounty of the harvest, and that great American holiday, Oktoberfest.

Winter has sledding, skiing, ice skating, hiking through snowy woods, playing hockey on a frozen pond, roasting chestnuts on an open fire — all that vintage American stuff you would surely do if you weren’t holed up in the TV room watching sports and checking the online air fares to Florida.

Spring needs no hype: It’s the most self-promotional season, everything budding and blossoming and surging and throbbing and grunting and forgetting to call the next day. Spring is a collective biological affirmation of the fundamental goodness, not to mention irrepressibility, of life.

Summer? Hmmm . . . Summer is the season of, let’s see . . . um . . . heat? And humidity. And hurricanes. It is the season when green things turn brown. It is the season when well-manicured gardens become so choked with weeds you feel like the victim of an Old Testament punishment. (Genesis: “Thou shall know toil, famine, plague and crab grass.”) Summer is the season of bloodsucking insects, wriggly legged vermin and outbreaks of mildew that can push a strong man to the brink of insanity. I’ve seen Marines reduced to quivering, sniveling puddles by catastrophic aphid infestations in their rose beds.

Worse, summer is so dull that even C-SPAN is mostly reruns. And so on: It’s a drab, sticky, hazy, boring season from beginning to end. And yet — here’s the strangest thing of all — it’s also clearly, obviously, indisputably the best season. Easy winner of the competition. Give me summer, and you can have the whole package of fall, winter and spring.

The other seasons you appreciate with your eyes, but summer you feel all over your body, on your skin, in between your toes and in your bones. Sometimes during summer I wonder why I am so much more aware of being an animal. And then it comes to me: Because I am wearing a loin cloth. Actually it is a ragged pair of gym shorts, but close enough. Summer is the season when total degeneration is socially acceptable. The rules are more lax. You don’t have to eat your vegetables or clean your room or rotate your tires. Or speak in complete sentences. You don’t even have to speak in partial sentences, since, during summer, if you want someone to pass you the barbecue sauce you merely need to point.

A concept that would require a full paragraph of explanation and hectoring during winter can be communicated in summer with a single raised eyebrow. Sometimes my editor won’t even edit during summer, but merely look at me, stick her finger in her mouth, pop it against her cheek, and then point the finger straight up and rotate it rapidly. This is her way of saying, “Start over.”

What summer has is time. You don’t feel so rushed. A summer day swings in a hammock, loiters on the porch. A summer day just can’t be bothered with a lot of things that seem important the rest of the year, like shoes. Even a grown-up many years removed from school still feels a certain entitlement to freedom in summertime. At my office, an editor will occasionally suggest that I write a story, and I’ll just say, “But it’s July.”

Washington is a city in which summer is a verb — as in, “we summer at the Vineyard.” As a general rule, there’s an unspoken agreement among politicians and pundits in Washington that all news events, even national emergencies, should be postponed until after Labor Day. That’s why the Sandra Day O’Connor resignation a couple of weeks ago was such a shocker. Every professional blowhard in town had the same thought: What will this mean for the Supreme Court, for the future of the republic and, most importantly, for my vacation schedule?

Last year, most of us summered poorly, because we were hostage to Bush v. Kerry and knew that anything we did, even something mundane, like boil corn, might change the outcome of the election.

Even this year, with a war going on, the hammock seems an indulgence. They said the other day that the temperature in Iraq had passed the 110-degree mark. Probably not a lot of lounging by the pool there.

Maybe the last time we had a summer that felt entirely right was 2001. We were able back then to leave the world behind, putter around the yard, wait for the tomatoes to ripen. We were free, and safe, and living the good summer life.

Bring back those sunny days.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."

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Joel Achenbach · June 20, 2013