Summer Part 1: The Bill Always Comes

**The Summer of The Winter of Our Discontent**

There’s this key moment in Sudoku, when you find a clutch number that gives way to the others and begin to just fall into place like a waterfall. Much like the card you play in solitaire where you know you’re about to crack it. I had just written in a 6 I’d been trying to find for way too long. So began the waterfall, and I filled in the other boxes proudly– possibly smugly because this puzzle felt like it was out to trick me personally and now I had it in my hands! Until I didn’t, and in slow motion realized I had two number 7’s in the bottom row, and I just wanted to hit myself.

I tried to work backwards to fix it, but it was irreparably blown. I blew it. So, there went the last two weeks.

0.jpeg
Somewhat of a Doodler 

Of course, I’ve been up to other things. It’d be funny if after a month break all I had to show for it was a failed puzzle. Can’t all be winners.

For starters, summer reading. In July I was booklets after finishing Killing Commendatore, and sad I didn’t have more Murikami to lose myself in. Finally I scanned my own bookshelf for unread potential treasures and picked up Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, which doesn’t sound like much of an apropos Summer read, but it’s just that. It’d sat idle on my shelf for years, even though that white house on the cover had caught my eye a thousand times. I had no idea the brilliance I was missing! It’s like suddenly realizing an old painting in your closet is worth some absurd amount of money. Once I dove in I didn’t want out, which surprised me when it shouldn’t have. It’s a classic, what did I expect?

386391.jpg

The book was written in 1961, and given the passage of time I expected a natural  disconnect. I’ve been so wrapped up in modern fiction– for too long probably. Yet somehow the America and the People and Assumed Human Decency that Steinbeck depicted 60 years ago were all completely recognizable today. You wouldn’t have to drive long before finding a sister town to “New Baytown”or look very hard before confronting modern replicas of his primary characters. Ultimately he tapped into the problems, desires, personal demons and moral choices most all of us face at some point– it’s just astounding to me that Steinbeck unearthed such deep, quiet struggles and could discern which ones were engrained in us and would stand the test of time.

Maybe that’s a litmus test for what makes a book a classic; if the suppositions and ideas can weather the decades and remain solidly true, unbothered by time, then you’ve got yourself a winner. I guess that’s pretty obvious, but it felt remarkable to come across.

The book reads a lot like a memoir of protagonist Ethan Crawley, who is so likable, in the first place, it’s hard to put down. I felt a relief knowing there was someone else who felt these ways –about money and politics and social hierarchies and expectations. He makes a joke out of probably 85% of his replies, and rarely does anyone get it, or choose to acknowledge it with a laugh anyway. That felt… familiar.

I feel similarly when I watch SNL sketches that crack me up. It’s not in the scene itself, but in the imagining of the writers who wrote the sketch, and knowing that real people out there recognized absurdity the way that I do. It’s easy not to feel seen in the world, but knowing other people see things the same way you do, even perfect strangers, feels like the twin brother to feeling understood. One scene in the book hammered this feeling in…

Crawley and his wife have been invited to another couples house to discuss “business”, i.e. money, but they have to go through the obligatory song and dance first.  That means a formal serving of tea and then petty small talk. Everyone sipped tea and each delivered some anecdote on the subject of tea. He’s bored to tears. When it became Ethan’s turn to chime in, he brought up Danny, the town drunk, and a terrible nightmare he’d had about him. I laughed as he described feeling his wife’s quiet anger that he didn’t keep up the supposedly pleasant tea talk, and now everyone had to comment about a despairing subject. I wonder how many pleasant bouts of small talk I’ve Debbie Downer’ed with an some morbid comment that I found funny? Probably too many. Anyway, it’s a perfect scene.

A few of my favorite passages:

“So many old and lovely things are stored in the worlds attic, because we don’t want them around us and we don’t dare throw them out.”

I don’t suppose there’s a man in the world who doesn’t love to give advice.”

(Ethan)”Is Marullo part of the group?”

(Wealthy friend) “Certainly not. He goes his own way with his own crowd.” (The Italians. Marullo is an immigrant)

(Ethan)“They do pretty well, don’t they?”

(Friend) “Better than I think is healthy. I don’t like to see these foreigners creeping in.”

Sounds familiar eh?

“There is no such thing as just enough money. Only two measures: No Money and Not Enough Money.”

“No one wants advice–only corroboration.”

“I always put it down to fact that a wife never likes her husband’s boss or his secretary.” “All men are moral. Only their neighbors are not.” “Not only the brave get killed, but the brave have a better chance at it.” “For the most part people are not curious, except about themselves.”

I must have underlined half the book.

51lmTfDL9fL._SL300_

Next I read Hemingways The Sun Also Rises, another of the greats that’d been collecting dust not far from Steinbeck. When finishing it I wondered why I haven’t read more of the classics, because this was a damn great book too. There’s no good reason I don’t have more of them under my belt, except that I didn’t take enough literature classes in college I guess, and I hardly know what the real classics are. So, I’ve begun a list. Who cares. Anyway I won’t go so far into this one. As tribute to Hemingway and his distinguished, succinct style I’ll say this: The book is rather great and you should read it. You’ll have a swell time. 

 

Especially if you love Paris, Spain, the Pamplona Fiesta, fishing, Bullfighting, and forbidden love. Hemingway was clearly a romantic. Did you know he was married four times? Only a true romantic gives marriage that many goes. 

The passage that stuck:

“I had been getting something for nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came. That was one of the swell things you could count on. …You paid some way for everything that was any good.”

If that’s not the truth I don’t know what is.

I kept thinking about it’s application to health. That very often, when you have your health, it’s free. They say your health is like your breath–you don’t pay attention to it until you lose it. I think back on life before the relapse, and how I’d done nothing to earn my state of ‘decent’ state of health. I’d also done nothing to earn the relapse that eventually followed. It felt like someone at my door, come to collect a bill every day, when I hadn’t purchased anything. When well, I was getting something for nothing, without even knowing it. Once sick I had to begin paying for those somethings, and surrender what I couldn’t afford.

My hope, and I think my belief, is that it doesn’t have to mean the surrender of those things that matter most. When you’re forced to give things up, it feels just that way. But learning to live without them has been an ongoing lesson in letting go of what I thought I needed in order to live a life I liked. You end up finding a whole other you behind those old roles. It offered a strange opportunity to see my own self without these external identifiers. That allowed me to see the world differently too. I’m (still) learning it’s up to me, more often than not, how I choose to see both.

But, as the man said, you paid for anything that was any good. Many things that allow me to feel alive and good come at a cost. It’s like a tax on fun, in the currency of health. Actually I also pay the tax when I haven’t had fun. REAL COOL BODY THANKS. At any rate, I feel fortunate I still have people and places and experiences to (sometimes) overindulge in at all.

0-3 0-5

Like him. He’s worth it.

I imagine everyone has their respective “things” or indulgences for which a bill reliably comes. And maybe depending on what point we’re asked, during the playing or the paying, would we consider whether or not the juice was worth the squeeze. For me, mostly, paying the bill feels worth it when I’ve decided to splurge. Girls gotta live sometimes.

Health, Happiness, Paying the Tab

The Thick

Blindfolded, deafened, gone for more than 30 years, I think a native could return to Louisiana in the thick of summer, depart a plane at Louis Armstrong, inhale once and know exactly where he was. Despite the cliché, there is “something in the air” here, yes mostly humidity and probably some indisputable carcinogens, but something else in that first sauna breath you take–The one that wets your lungs with tiny beads of moisture and probably all your other organs too. That first thankless inhale of steam disguised as air: it’s as distinct as the creeping surprise of the Vegas lights after endless, sleepy desert,  unmistakable as the New York City skyline, tangible as the feeling of velvet soft sand on your feet in Destin, once again–it’s always the same. Maybe there’s where the comfort lies. No one ever doubted New Orleans is one city in the country with what we’d call ‘personality’, which is rare in itself, but that you can feel this elusive, geometric charm and how quickly it engages with you, within your first breath of arrival! It’s one reason I love calling this place home. I like the certainty of knowing just where you are. It’s maybe why Percy’s The Moviegoer is so perfectly set in New Orleans (and surrounding areas) for Binx Bingsley, whose fear is being a nobody, nowhere, or anywhere. He wants to be Somebody, Somewhere. And that characters angst always resonates with me when I’m doing something so Louisiana particular. Even it’s just arriving at the airport.

This is not to say there is charm in 98 degrees with 100% humidity and a “feels like temperature of 112!” laughs the thick banged weather lady. With certainty, this place is a gym sock in the summer. I’m writing from inside a gym sock. The cicadas drone outside, another distinct assurance you are where you think you are, their shriek understandably creepy to newcomers, but I think they’re mostly carrying on about the heat, like the rest of us. There’s also the two weeks of swarming termites, and cock roaches, and mosquitos the size of so and so, but it’s all a part of the agreement of summer and survival and Louisiana. You do actually have to make sacrifice to live here, bear things other places do not and would not bear, but somehow it adds to the solidarity of being a citizen here, like you must earn it if you weren’t born in it, and if you were, you might not see any novelty in what I’m mentioning at all. Maybe it’s that I didn’t always live here, had to re-gain my Southernness that I appreciate otherwise somewhat awful things, but even awful things can be special.

The weather is usually such a boring topic of conversation–a fill in topic with people on an elevator or someone you have absolutely nothing in common with. “Gosh..it’s so hot outside.” “Oh my gosh, I know, I was just telling Jerry here that I soaked through my shirt yesterday and you could see everything!” But the heat of summer in New Orleans isn’t weather. It’s air that was once alive and now is dead. Stagnant with no mercy, demanding that you find the least amount of clothes to wear while maintaining some amount of dignity, which has always been hard to do, but comes naturally to true Southern Belles. Especially the elderly ones with the delicate hankies for their brow. The ones with the good stories, who have almost literally seen it all. Their growling, thin-lipped faces, hardly tainted by the heat, probably look at people like me and mine in our cropped, spaghetti-strap tank tops and cut off jean shorts and think “What a shame. The decay of the Southern Woman.”

While it’s true my mom and grandmother actually did walk to school in the snow, Southern women lived when donning multiple layers of clothing was basically required, even in Summer. And if that weren’t enough, they persevered without air conditioning. How? Why? How? This makes me feel like even more of a pansy than I already consider myself, which is pretty high up there on the pansy scale. I call the air stagnant now, but how can when I have the ice-cold relief of entering an air-conditioned building or house, where I then actually get cold and require my handy feather-weight Gap cardigan! How did they do it? After three summers, why didn’t they head for Cali? They must’ve seen telegraphs about 75 degree weather year round! I imagine New Orleans on a beach and think it’d be by far the greatest city of the world, but of course, Louisiana could never ‘happen’ in California. We’re mossy and swampy but formal and demure, not palm tree’d and beachy and board shorted. And yet, we live on a coast. Which is disappearing! The excitement of it all!

It’s not just the stagnancy of air, but of people. Here in the dead pit of Summer, you see them in their cars at stop lights, tired eyes squinting because despite whatever direction they’re facing the sun always seems to be in their eyes, shining at them. Yelling if it could. If you took a photo of one of these persons, and I have been this person, it would be in black and white, evoking the feelings of depression-era photographs, and the caption at the bottom would have one word: “Why?” Condemned. That’s how they look. One degree from driving off the next bridge.

My house can’t cool off during the hours of 1 and 3. The AC just can’t keep up. Monty lies on the tile and pants the entire time, not even bothering for me to play with him because neither of our bodies could withstand the exertion while being smothered by a steam shower we never asked to take. You always forget how intense this heat is. “It’s just this humidity!” any tourist will tell you. And actually most locals will too. Despite the extended Louisiana summer unfolding somewhere near to this climate for at least the last hundred years, and it’s still boasted like humidity is new to the menu. Like El Nino is just making things crazy! And yes I know, we’ve had some actual El Nino and last year was the hottest year on record. But still, the difference between 92 and 96 degrees is slightly felt when you’re out under the sun. Even the Wal-Greens clerk reminds me, “Try to stay cool!” and I answer the same thing every time, feeling like I’m out of the fifties. I’ll do my best! Then I walk self-consciously to my car thinking how stupid a response that was.

Have we been commenting on the heat for the last 127 years? It’s possible. Nothing wrong with recurring conversation topics that survive the decades. I guess I’d rather not get into politics with the Walgreens clerk as I’m buying deodorant and Head and Shoulders. And why do I care anyway? This is just turning ironic because now I’ve written 1500 words on a subject I am questioning the very interest of and expecting somebody to read and find this interesting! Oh jeez. We’ve gone meta. Anyway.

I used to think Summer weather here was basically miserable, except that it provided an atmosphere appropriate for swimming, nearly required for swimming, which I have always loved. But I’ve come to appreciate it in new ways for a few possible reasons. One is probably because I’ve been feeling better, and when I think of the Winter, how I was sick and stuck indoors, cold with no recreation, I’m just glad it’s here– in all its steamy, hot-breathed glory. Whenever I return from a trip and step outside the airport, the first breath is almost the opposite of one. First you lose it, then you breath it back in, and this misty breath will always evoke home to me, and I feel grateful for the oxygenated relic. Maybe because I know or assume it will always be there- June through September at least- and it’s something you have to tough out. You don’t get to stay and party for free. Lot’s of people will come and go, speak about intolerable heat with good reason. And that makes me like it more. You know you have a clan of people who you’ll endure this heat with for four months, as though heat itself were some sort of natural disaster. And there’s a communal, club-like feeling to this. OK clearly I’m reaching. It’s not special, I know. For God’s sake, I’m talking about breathing air! I’ve just never encountered the immediate, difficult, distinctive Louisiana air anywhere else, or anything close to it. Louisiana has its own texture and smell and density, the tension of our past/present invigorates it as much as the coming summer storms. It’s all in there. I don’t have the answer for how. But Gary Zuckav says that the Universe is alive. He says there is an “earth consciousness that guides the cycle of life.” When I think of the ocean and all its functions and how it knows to operate certain ways, these words make perfect sense. At the airport breathing, (gasping) sensing something more than air, waiting for my ride, I hear his words with perfect clarity.

Health, Happiness, Heat
And this humidity!!