August anchoring

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 9.24.25 PMI am over summer. August feels heavy and long and slow; my office is empty, the park on weekends is empty; there are open parking spots on my block smack in the middle of a Saturday. I used to be one of those people who left during the summers. Pre-husband, pre-baby, I'd pack a light bag and be off from Friday night to Monday morning. My parents' pool; my grandmother's house on the beach; a weekend share in Fire Island with friends. Weeks in San Francisco, in London. Lying in the sun, the radio humming in the background, watching the dragonflies land on still water, daydreaming.

Someone said that summer ends on the 4th of July and I hate that that's true. Summer is mostly about anticipation, now. The bathing suit shopping and the beach house coordinating and the flip flop purchasing and the summer reading lists. By now, we've all already read or discarded our summer reading. We've moved on to fall releases.

So August is a murky in-between, and we all know I have never been good with in-betweens.

Every year, to anchor myself in the month, I start planning for fall. Soon we'll take an autumn anniversary trip -- the first time I'll spend a night away from my baby. (Gulp.) Soon we'll send out invitations for our girl's first birthday party. Soon I'll be buying a fancy dress for a dear friend's black-tie wedding; soon I'll be visiting open houses. Soon it will be Christmas and a new year and a whole new winter, where I'll start planning for summer.

Summer rentals

Screen shot 2015-04-08 at 12.11.38 PMWe lived in a pink house that summer. The top floor of a two-story rental, the deck was so rickety we would have "deck counts" every time we had company over. I'd open the screen door and ask, how many of you are out here? and then listen for the numbers echoing back in the starlight. Five was the limit, and even that was pushing it. We laughed and rolled our eyes at our paranoia, but at the end of that summer, the deck of a similar house up the island collapsed, so the risk was real. (A decade later I'd meet a friend who actually did experience a collapsing deck, this one at her college rental house in Michigan. She broke her leg. A newspaper article about it is still her first hit on Google.)

We were 19 and 21; carefree workhorses; young enough to work two jobs each day -- 10am to 4pm, then 4:30pm to close at another place -- and still find time for parties and bars and midnight beach gatherings. I eschewed the sun that year, for some reason; white as a ghost, I'd sneer at the tourists with their tan lines as I rang up their tee shirts and jewelry, their island trinkets. I was jealous, though. What good was living in a pink house on the beach if I was always stuck inside working?

I've never been a fan of springtime, but now I am craving the warmth and the light. Today, though, is gloomy. When my baby and I walked through the house on our regular morning routine she didn't have to squint her eyes when I pulled back the curtain and opened the blinds; the moon was still out and the sun was filtered through too many clouds. She looked confused. Where was the brightness? Was it really daytime? I kissed her plump face -- cheeks for days, that girl -- and assured her it was.

The pink house is gone now. A few years back they finally knocked it down, rebuilt it, like so many things on the island after Hurricane Sandy. Someday I'll walk my little girl past it. The sun will be on our backs, pounding, prodding us along the street. We'll be holding hands and squinting at the brightness. Look, I'll tell her. Mama lived there for a summer, just one, and managed to not collapse.


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August is restless

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 11.06.10 PMThese days I lack the long-term focus to watch movies. An hour-long drama pushes my limits; halfway through I think "What was I just doing?" which turns into "Is it me, or is this show not terribly interesting?" It's me. Right now, it's always me.

Even reading books takes up more concentration than I can sometimes handle; on the F train I catch myself re-reading the same page again and again, forcing myself to process the words, feeling them, recognizing them, but somehow not understanding them, until finally I arrive at my stop and join the crowd going up the often-broken escalator.

August is restless for me but it's also cool, transformative, unlike any other month I've experienced. This year, August mornings are autumnal. I walk down Lafayette Street and notice the shadows are longer. The sun is always moving but somehow we never really see it until August is almost over, when it's too late to remember to do anything about it.

So August moves on and with it the summer and the world and the news. Too much news. Back in the early aughts when the Iraq war first began I had a coworker who would come into the office bleary-eyed and late, behind on deadlines. "I just can't stop watching war coverage," she would say. That's how I feel this week. I check the #ferguson stream constantly; I stew, I cry, I seethe. I can't focus on much, but I can focus on that hashtag, I guess.

There is nothing for me to do but breathe through it all: the restlessness, the anger, the fear, the fatigue. The time passing. The future. I take so many deep breaths, so many sighs, that people ask me if I'm okay, what's wrong, why are you sighing. But it's just the way I try to recenter myself. It's just me, getting through the month and the world the only way I know how.

The house of...something

morgan_wharton_coverLast spring an unexpected offer had me teaching two classes this past semester, both for graduate students at NYU. It's something I never thought I'd do -- teach -- especially when I work full-time, sometimes more than full-time, at a job that keeps me engaged and checking my social platforms at midnight. (And especially considering I don't have, and don't want, a graduate degree.) I may have danced around with glee after I turned in my grades this week, but there's lots I'll miss about teaching. But oh, how nice it feels to have free weekends and Wednesday nights again. Just in time, too; next week we move into our new place, which means right now our apartment is part mess, part chaos, with boxes blocking the TV and random scraps of paper littering our floors. No one likes moving, of course, but we Cancers despise it most; my home is important to me, and a sense of unease has overtaken me when I walk in. It's temporary, but it's there.

All my books are packed (thanks, mom) and I have put myself on an ebook-buying hold, which means I'm currently reading a tattered old copy of The House of Mirth, a favorite. Or at least, I thought it was a favorite; I'm finding it tough to get through, but that's partly because the state of my mind these days is less than focused. It feels like a harkening back, though, like a visit to a memory; a piece of the familiar when everything else is changing. I'll take it.

Looking east

4788_117277103427_6224336_nIn the summer I listen to Jackson Browne because that was the music of my sixteenth summer, and even then it was old, it was the music of my boss at my summer job, but it played in our store on the best corner of Long Beach Island and I memorized every word without realizing it. My boss loved him so much she even named her son Jackson; I babysat him one winter, in the off-season, and I kept dashing into his bedroom to make sure he was still breathing. Babies are terrifying and also too simple. A few summers later her car wrapped around a tree on her way home. I can’t remember how I found out about it – I suspect my mom broke the news – but I do remember standing around the kitchen of my summer restaurant, hating the looks of sympathy my coworkers were sending me in between waiting tables. This wasn’t about me; I didn’t want their emotions.

I can’t think of summer, I can’t live summer, without thinking about her. Or this: the lingering concern that I spend too much time trying to get back to those July days when a cut of blue air would land on my heart, when the hours drifted by in a haze of cotton, a distant radio, sand tracked on tile floors. Shift work. Lunch breaks. A register ringing. Crushes on the coffee boys, a car that rarely started.

At 16 I swept the floors on an empty August afternoon on the block between beach and bay, after everything had been folded and refolded and straightened and restocked, and waited for night. The doors were open and I rested against them; frowned upon, but the salt air was too tempting, and there were people to watch in the ice cream line. I waved to my boss as she crossed the street in her running clothes. She always liked me; a treat, since I knew she didn’t like everyone. Jackson Browne was playing, of course, and when she entered the store she hummed along.

How many nights did I spend like that, watching the ebb and flow of the island, watching the girls in short shorts and the boys in flannel, watching the others, watching, listening. How many nights now am I hit with a breeze, or a scent, or a song, that swirls and swirls around me until I hear her voice singing that song?

When I go back now, of course it’s different, and of course I try to make it the same, and of course I will forever fail at that. When I drive I drive there, when the stoplights are off and the tide is high, and when I hear summer coming up my driveway I hear that road, that etched sidewalk, that jangle of coin.  In the store where I spent so many summers, after she died a plaque was hung – her photo, her dates, “In memoriam.”

The store’s owners divorced a while back; whoever ended up with the business in the settlement has changed things, renovated, redecorated. The plaque is gone. When I visit it’s so different I can’t even pretend it’s the same. I can’t even pretend I’m sixteen again, learning everything for the first time.

Portraits of a weekend spent unwinding

The pool was greenish and cloudy with a fine coating of dead gnats. In the dark, on the deck, I stepped on the remains of a slug's trail; it wound, dark and wet and fat, across the red wood and down the step onto the cement patio. The power went out at 2am, and I watched the lightning storm, so full of rage it never gave the night sky a chance to be night; so full of rage, it brought down trees and rooftops and cars and people.

But then there were these moments, too: the cheer from the neighborhood when the power kicked back on at noon. A platter of grilled fruit -- pineapple and peaches coated in caramelized sugar, hot from the flames. A clear, blue-er pool where I read half of Summer Sisters, because that's what I do in the pool every summer. B. in the hammock under the shady tree, relaxing in a way I never see him do. My dad on the deck, rockin' out to his iPod Touch (a recent prize) as he read his Kindle Fire (his Father's Day gift). My brother confessing high school indiscretions to my mother.

On the bus ride back to the city, I found $30 in singles someone had tucked in between the seat and the window. Was it some server's nightly earnings? Some runaway's stash? Should I donate it or use it or leave it?

I kept it. It paid for our tickets back home.

"I always wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it."

We're fond of tossing out Fitzgerald quotes like candy at my house, and the title above is a favorite, but I swear, it didn't occur to me until someone pointed it out this past week, on the day of the summer solstice itself, that the problem with summer solstices is that from here on out, the days shrink rather than extend, like summer is over before it's ever even begun. Tonight I was reminded of the NYC blackout of August 2003. Have I ever told you that story? Sometimes it feels like a perfect party trick, like this little ticket stub I keep in my pocket and pull out whenever someone mentions their subway being stuck or how hot the afternoon has grown. "I was at the big game," I can say.

I had taken the day off work and my sister and her friend were visiting. We had big plans for the day and tickets to the Indigo Girls at Central Park Summer Stage that evening. We'd browsed through the Village and then hopped on a train (I want to say it was ACE, but that's just me filling in the blanks) and it was hot, a hot hot heat that left our faces moist as we waited underground. K., my sister's friend, was one of those girls who was highly particular about her face and, quite simply, never touched it. Like, hands on face was off-limits, de facto. (The bitch had beautiful skin.)

So there I stood waiting for a train, wiping sweat off my upper lip and feeling judged by her for doing so, when finally one came, and it was crowded but cool, and it was like the whole platform heaved with relief at the change in temperature.

And then, ten minutes into the train ride, we stopped.

The short version: there was a blackout, city-wide; after 90 minutes we finally saw a conductor who informed us we'd be evacuating; it took another 90 minutes for that to actually happen, for us to stomp through underground tunnels, mice at our feet, hands on cool underground walls that I shudder to think about now, for a firefighter to pull me from a manhole in midtown as people snapped pictures.

I couldn't get home that night -- all the tunnels and bridges were closed to traffic. So we drank in the street -- leave it to New York to turn the day into a party -- and we watched businessmen in suits direct traffic and we assumed the concert had been canceled and we ended up back in my office in Times Square, which was running on a generator, and we played games and used the phone and ate free food from the cafeteria and slept on borrowed couches in executives' offices. Somehow the text I had sent while still stuck underground had gotten through, hours later, telling my mom we were okay, since someone had whispered the word "terrorist" while we were still in the dark train waiting to find out what had happened, and it hung around my brain like a lingering smell of dinner.

We barely slept, and in the hot, gray early morning we hopped on a bus; they were parked on the corners outside of Port Authority, which was still technically closed, and we were just hoping to get through the tunnel back to the Jersey side, since the benefits of a Hoboken apartment include the fact that you are mere steps away from both the Lincoln and Holland. It turns out the buses were all just kind of meandering, shipping people for free over the Hudson and then dumping them in various mall parking lots. So when we got on and got through the Lincoln, I pushed the yellow rope to indicate a stop and the driver's head jerked up.

"Does someone want to get off here?" He called back.

"Yes," I shouted, hoping that was an okay answer.

"Why?" He wondered.

"Um, I live here," I confessed.

"Lucky," my seat neighbor said.

We walked the half a mile back to my apartment, in the same clothes, needing toothbrushes and deodorant but overall, not too much worse for the wear, and discovered my apartment had never even lost power.

It was a free day off work, I remember. And somewhere, people have pictures of me being hoisted out of a manhole on 57th Street, probably aching to wipe the sweat off my upper lip.

Flashback Friday: Remember that time we got evacuated?

Remember in my previous entry, I was raving about all the time I had to do things on vacation? Well, then this happened. So today's flashback is about, well, yesterday.

We had a 9am yoga class on the beach, facing the ocean on a sparkling morning where I had nothing but a distant sailboat to focus on as I balanced in my tree pose. Then we picked up breakfast and coffee at our favorite market (which is conveniently on the corner of our beach rental house) and ate and drank on the porch, watching the clouds wind themselves over what had been a sunny morning. We changed for the beach, knowing a storm was on the way that evening, ready to wrap ourselves in blankets on the sand. It was all beautiful.

I don't remember how or when the hurricane panic set in. It feels like one minute everyone was fine, and the next, everyone's phones were ringing and the lifeguards had changed the flags and all the locals were talking about what time to leave. We left the beach and decided to walk around the shops a bit. We ran into my first grade teacher; I bought a sweatshirt. Everyone tried on shoes. We bought matching sunglasses. We knew our vacation would likely be cut short; we just didn't know by how long.

And the whole time, a quiet doom was seeping into us. The Beach Haven gas station had two long lines of cars wrapped around the block, waiting to fill up so they could leave the island. (By 6pm last night, it had run out of gas.) Many conversations ensued about what to do (bus? train? drive? but could we get gas? would it take hours to get off the island, with its one bridge on and off?). We called a house meeting, which was awesome and felt like an episode of The Real World.

We packed up our rental in record time and just...left. It was already stormy (not Irene-related) and that just added to the heightened sense of panic, making us all feel like the hurricane was nipping at our heels and would be here any second. About 20 minutes off the island, the skies cleared. No one was talking about the hurricane. Things felt normal. The hives I'd grown on my neck disappeared.

Today, of course, is glorious. It would have been a perfect beach day.

Stay safe, friends.

Wimbledon every morning

My beach rental faces the island's busiest tennis courts. Each morning one of us begins the day by putting on the coffee and putting out the porch seat cushions, sipping contemplatively as she decides who to root for in each match and what an appropriate time is to wake everyone up to get the day's adventures started. And they are adventures. Yesterday we were on the beach, of course -- a glorious morning. I stretched out on a towel on the sand, and after some time began wondering why the kids next to me were digging their hole so aggressively -- the sand was shifting under me, like the earth was giving me a rough massage. I sat up to find out the source, when E. announced "Um, that's an earthquake." And so it was. (For the record, half of the people on the beach seemed entirely unconcerned; the other half, me included, kept a close eye on the tide to watch for any receding water. Not that we had anywhere to run to...).

It's only Wednesday, and I'm here until Saturday, and each morning I have to remind myself that there is time to do everything and nothing; time to read (Freedom, for the record, which I am reluctantly enjoying), time to write, time to sleep, time to visit all the places that formed me, time to play round after round of Apples to Apples with my friends.

For someone who thinks there's never enough time, this is the height of indulgence.

P.S. Those are jellyfish in this picture. They don't sting, but on days when the water is warm, you can see them rising and falling in the waves, and they litter the drift line like some sort of jellyfish graveyard. They glimmer in the sunlight. I hate them but they are incredibly beautiful, and I find myself rooting on the kids who throw them back into the ocean; a losing but honorable battle.

And now Ray LaMontagne is stuck in my head.

This is kind of true! I mean, it's a bit of a downer, but I mostly agree with the sentiment. Summer is over, it says, by the 4th of July; "the plans you made have either fallen through or have been executed half-heartedly and with regret. The failures of the season have already been written in the Book of Life underneath all the failures of summers past."

The timeline of summer has shifted over the years. As a kid, of course, it was decided by school, two bookends that determined when you were free and when you weren't. As a teen, summer started even earlier -- Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend if you worked in a resort town like me, or early May to mid August if you're in college, no matter the weather, no matter how many finals you still had to take. Now, summer is whenever you can get your hands on it.

Already, the official beginning of summer -- June -- feels like a distant memory, clouded by the heat and weight that was July. It's true the sunlight feels different now than it did eight weeks ago; it's true I'm still waiting for a tan that will likely never come, and I've forgotten to buy that new pair of flip-flops I wanted. Unopened bottles of sunblock are taking up space in my bathroom. I haven't yet been in the ocean.


I will be on vacation in 1.5 weeks, finally; a sure-to-be blissful week in a beach house with some dear friends. The island might be half empty (full?), and it will probably feel like we're closing some sort of chapter there, because August always does (in that same way Sundays always do), even as it crawls forward like a lazy spider. So I'm not done with summer yet.

Sing it, Ray.

August gardens

Not normally one for gardens, I have a growing love for my parents' backyard this summer. Over the past few years my mom has developed a green thumb, and on any given summer day she is out back picking her fresh tomatoes and strawberries, pulling leaves of basil and sprigs of rosemary to add to her dinner, watering the pink and red flowers that dot the horizon in their hanging pots. On weekends my dad mows the lawn and fixes the windowboxes out front; if I'm home visiting, he'll wash and clean my car for me, without asking. (A nice surprise if you can get it.) The dogs lounge, then roll around in the freshly-cut grass, stretching out their backs and shaking off the clippings. Sometimes it feels like an episode of The Wonder Years, old-timey and idyllic, without all the bad men's shorts.

But back to the garden. Here in the foreground are real live pumpkin patches, two kinds, and one trails back in a curve to my favorite plant of all, the butterfly bush. This whole section of the backyard was an unexpected garden -- the bay winds blew some stray seeds there, and nature did its thing. It is dangerously close to overtaking the lower deck (you can see a swath of the deck in the bottom right; yes, it's red, or "country red" as my parents like to say.). I cannot wait for fall to see how many pumpkins appear, though I'll mourn the missing butterflies.

And here is the strawberry plant -- in full and close up. My niece tends to steal all of the ripe ones (we can all take a lesson from her, I think -- seize what you want before it's gone) but she left a few behind, and I popped one in my mouth, sweet as candy and redder than the petals that bloom beside it.

Gardening is a lot of work; I am not always patient. When it hasn't rained for days one must step in; as quickly as new leaves and petals and fruits come forth, other ones die and must be picked. Then there are the spiders that build forts over some of the plants, especially at night; there is always a risk of getting caught in a sticky silver web when you try to coax guests outside for some midnight margaritas on the deck. There are bees.

But I think it is all worth it. Especially the midnight margaritas.