I am sitting here on the first morning of summer after a long walk up and down the trail along the Brazos. The sun wasn’t too hot yet when we left, but it was getting there. A summer morning can seem like the perfect thing just about anywhere when you are mostly disengaged from thoughts about responsible things. A summer morning hearkens back the early days of summer after a brutal school year where I was certain that this would be the summer I built up my muscles and got tanned instead of burned, returning to school a perfect jock ready with fists and retorts to ward of any would be bullies.
One such summer fell after the seventh grade, which was probably the single worst year for me in terms of getting kicked around by adolescence. Perhaps I deserved some of the bullying I’d received, since I’d dished out much bullying upon a friend the summer before, but I was so hollowed out by the end of the year, so beaten down by all of the changed people who used to be at least nice to me. An especially large old oak tree had been felled by lightning during the spring storms, and was to be the centerpiece of my massive get-in-shape summer program. Carrying my little boombox out to the tree with only a handheld hacksaw and the Tom Petty tapes I’d recorded late at night when the radio played full albums, I began at the very top of the tree where the thinner branches were.
Remarkably, I was able to cut up most of the tree using only the handsaw. It was only the thickest part of the tree at its base that I left to my dad to cut up with the chainsaw. However, I couldn’t seem to keep up with my other initiatives around running, walking the dog, working out with tiny barbells and using my dad’s rowing machine. I was still caught up in a lingering childhood obsession with baseball, and felt the need to play little league, only to discover that at least a few of the kids who’d picked on me during the school year were on my team. Of course, I was terrible, I’d seemed to have gotten worse with each passing year I played baseball.
I suppose that my lackluster performance in little league, coupled with a scout camp trip filled with more guys who seemed ready to bully me, were enough to leave me mostly uninterested in doing anything but watching TV and reading books the rest of the summer. Or, maybe I didn’t need anything at all to cause me to give up my workout program. It was easy enough by July 4th to completely forget that the same bullies and angry teachers and other awfulness would be waiting for me in less than two months.
Summers stopped meaning much of anything after the first summer down here in Texas–the first summer after I graduated from college (I had to take catchup classes all summer after most of my classmates had graduated, so the first summer in Austin was my first post-college summer). That was the summer of 1999. My little brother Hersch had died only a few months before. I was incredibly excited about getting to start over a brand new life with a new girlfriend in a new town, but I was also chock full of guilt over abandoning my parents in Missouri in their grief, and general guilt over having gotten to live while Hersch died.
Then, during the summer of 2000, I think the reality of being an adult started to really set in. The fact that there were no lengthy breaks might seem to be a superficial thing that we all just resign ourselves to and learn to live with. Except, summers with their extended time away from school did provide something that I wouldn’t realize until much later is very helpful and important to my renewal and ability to see life as meaning something in terms of progressing along toward a next stage.
All of that to say that after 1999, life just seemed to kind of drag on without any hard, clearly defined next steps. Sure, I kept trying to learn more at my job and grow and get better and find new work elsewhere. Yes, I was dedicated to finding someone to spend the rest of my life with, and saw marriage and children as obvious next steps. But, those were all things I was expected to find and figure out for myself, where school was always just put in front of me by parents and teachers. The safe feeling of knowing that I was going to be progressing to a definable stage at a certain date was something I had so much taken for granted.
I think that for awhile I didn’t really believe I needed that safe feeling anymore. I was glad that no one was telling me it was time to go back to school, and I could stop and start any program of self improvement any time I wanted to. Maybe if I had joined the Army I would have gotten some of what I was missing, but that inclination had mostly been removed through parents telling me I most definitely would NOT join the army, and then me being convinced I was more of an artsy, creative type. Both my unexamined assumptions about myself and my willingness to let my parents decide my future to some degree were actions I would later come to question more thoroughly, if not outright regret.
As I prepare to return to school this fall, summer has suddenly started to mean something again, in an unexpected way. This summer will be the last summer I am “off” as I dive into school, where I will be taking classes most summers for the next three-four years to come. But, even though I will be attending summer school, I will have before me similar stops and starts around summer that I did the last time I was in school.
Only a mere seventeen years have passed since the summer of 1999. Much of the time, it is quite easy for me to compress these seventeen years into a few highlights (and lowlights) and not really believe that seventeen years have actually passed since I moved down here to Texas. Other than more lines on my face, white hair and less hair on top, I can’t really see myself as having changed that much. Yes, I’ve gotten wiser about a few things, but I don’t really have any “great and wise adult” feeling. I see other men and women out being very much adult-like and responsible, and I am always astounded to remember many of them are younger than me. Sometimes “adult-like” is simply the tenor of someone’s voice–a voice that sounds like a real grown-up, while the voice in my head and coming out of my mouth seems to be that of a twenty-year-old. Or, it is just a sense that someone has experienced so many more things–perhaps with the military, work, being a parent, etc.–than I have or ever will.
In fact, I am only really reminded that seventeen years have passed when I look hard in the mirror or am reminded that I am indeed 40 years old and not in my twenties. Time on the inside just never really synced itself with time on the outside.