Summer means different things to different people. And it can mean different things depending upon the region of the country you're in as well. I grew up in California but now reside in the Northeast. My understanding of summer has changed enormously, and how I measure a good one versus a bad one has never been clearer to me.
I am now a committed Easterner. August is my time.
Summer has a much clearer starting point on the Eastern Seaboard than it does in California. Growing up in Los Angeles, much of the year was summer with a regular interruption in February and March for rain and the attendant mudslides. The latter makes for great television news footage and creates occasions for Grandma or Uncle Moe back East to call to make sure transplanted family members did not slide into the ocean. Crazy Californians.
In the East, the moment the spring rain lets up and the temperature stays above roughly 67 degrees, summer begins. People complain about dog days in August, but for many Easterners, they signal a long-awaited retreat from work and the daily routines of home.
People in the East are much more organized about blocking off portions of summer for vacation. As an Angeleno, I hated any project that involved people from back East because it always meant nothing real could happen in late June or July, and certainly never in August. Everyone I knew would be "on the Cape," or headed to "the South Shore," or "to the Hamptons" or "to the Upper Peninsula," making it impossible to schedule team meetings for a full two-plus months because someone is always away.
This heading off to be "on the Cape," by the way, had the status of, say Ramadan for observant Muslims or Easter Mass to a devout Catholic. It was insulting and crazy, if not just plain sacrilegious, to suggest that anything interrupt or in any way interfere with someone's time "on the Cape."
In L.A., of course, July isn't all that different from September or October, or May for that matter, so there was never a need to religiously block off a portion of it for enjoyment each year. In Southern California it is understood: The sun will come out again soon; the skies will generally be clear; the beach is always open; the pool is always ready. Who needs to plan?
What is striking to me now, as a self-selected New Englander, is how much I have adopted and love the Eastern mindset. I love the clear seasonality of it. I am now a true believer in the sanctity of summer. Once I head "for the Vineyard," I do NOT intend to be interrupted. I will saunter to Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs for breakfast each morning to grab a newspaper. I will do the 16-mile bike ride from Sengekontacket Pond to Katama Beach and back again each day with my buddy. I will sit out on my porch and watch a beautiful sunset over the Lagoon and Vineyard Haven Sound each evening. I will head into Edgartown or go "up island" to Chilmark for dinner with friends.
Greer, get the wok-fired lobster ready, here I come! Chef Deon, get that conch chowder and those Jamaican ribs ready, I'm coming. And I know Jennifer and Roger will have several of this year's must-have T-shirts just waiting for me at C'est La Vie!
There are also more explicit summer rituals and traditions associated with this well-defined season in the East. Other than the fact that you're supposed to do fireworks on theFourth of July and barbecue on Labor Day, I can't remember any such rituals from life in Los Angeles. Of course, Angelenos may talk about a drive to Malibu Beach or to Palm Springs, or of a walk along the Venice boardwalk or Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade. These are all enjoyable things to do, to be sure.
But this all lacks the magical quality of the ferry trip from Woods Hole into Vineyard Haven or Oak Bluffs. Boarding the boat, seeing everyone's cars loaded up with summer clothes, bikes and the kids' toys is always a joy for me. I rush to the front of the boat once the car is securely parked. A 45-minute passage into the warming bliss of summer.
I now measure a summer by the number of bike rides completed, crossword puzzles finished, murder mysteries read, martinis quaffed and cigars stubbed out. The most important thing with any of these activities is not the absolute number of them but to have effectively lost count of each. And the only way to do that is to stay put for days on end, brooking no godless interruptions. You have to let it all sink in—the feel of being surrounded by ocean air, the pace of a place where everyone is on holiday and the simplicity and beauty of it all. Just let it sink in.
Don't get me wrong. I am not a total hedonist. A certain part of the day, say from early morning till one or so, should be dedicated to reading and writing, remaining "engaged" with the world. I do travel with laptop, printer and fax machine.
And the dinner can turn into a seminar when you bump into folks with names like Marian, Spike, Skip, Tree, Lani, Manning, Charlayne and Vernon.
So, when Californians call wondering if I am coming to the meeting in July, the answer is: No! Am I going to the big conference in early August? No! Can I be a part of a workshop session this summer? No!
I wish everyone at the Cape, the South Shore, the Hamptons, the Upper Peninsula or wherever, a most glorious summer. You know where to look for me. I am enjoying the High Holy days of August on the Vineyard. All of you interested in that conference call, or panel discussion or workshop, please know that it would be deeply heretical to interrupt me.
Lawrence Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Sociology and of African and African-American studies at Harvard University.