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My Summer Zen

I learned that we are mostly climate-controlled wimps afraid of the slightest discomfort, moaning every time the seasons remind us that we are not owners, but tenants.


The Demon had his way with me for a few years, especially during a July of remodeling a house, when we somehow lived without air conditioning. Like everyone else, during my first summers back in town I whined about the weather, as if God would relent and say: "What was I thinking? You get Maine's weather this summer."

Then a change took place: the Piedmont Demon became my friend. What happened? As my yoga teacher might say when I try a handstand with every muscle quivering, then fall down, "It's not about achievement; it's about experience." So, yogi-like, I just had to let go of my hatred for the Demon and spend some quality time with him, just breathing. In long torrid stretches of late afternoon, when our oak tree blocks the sun, I move a chair into our shade garden. I'm grimy and sweaty after a long bike ride or walk home from work: the perfect time for very cold beer. Sometimes a neighbor, a fellow madman who has learned to embrace his suffering, sees me and ambles across the street with a six-pack so we can while away a few hours in a cloud of cigar smoke and humidity. Soon every pore seems clogged, every fiber of clothing sticks like a layer of epoxy. The air is tepid broth. Ah, bliss.

It's not just beer that numbs the Demon into friendship. I've repeated my experiment several times without alcohol and even with my usual companion, hot coffee. No, I've made peace with the Demon by joining his team. First lesson: I learned that we are mostly climate-controlled wimps afraid of the slightest discomfort, moaning every time the seasons remind us that we are not owners, but tenants. In what passes for a winter here, Richmonders panic when the first flake drifts down. And while every spring I pity those with bad allergies, pollen on the car hood does not justify wailing and the gnashing of teeth. Come summer, it's the Demon that drives folks wild with weather-induced tantrums. Hearing too many friends and co-workers complain, I began to taunt them about what they could not control. Quickly I discovered that such remarks are not only mean-spirited but also dangerous: I soon I feared for my life or at least the safety of my coffee cup.

So I took a kinder approach, reminding others that we can make pain our friend by going outside a bit more and keeping the AC turned to a setting other than "McMurdo Station, Antarctica." One sweat-bead at a time, we can all come to love our buddy the Piedmont Demon. After all, we have helped him over the years; the weather has grown warmer. I accept the reality of global warming, unlike some politicians who know more than a bunch of pesky researchers publishing peer-reviewed data in the world's best scientific journals. But I also know that our local climate gets warm from a metropolitan "heat island" that absorbs more than it can release overnight.

The Piedmont Demon commanded me to send you a message. After one of our scorching days, take a drive out of town any evening and stop the car 30 or so miles out. Then take a short walk and you will feel something: a summer night from my AC-free childhood, when our row house near the City Stadium had fans, open windows, and homemade lemonade in the "icebox." No, I'm not that old; that was my parents' charming term for their 1950s Frigidaire. Homes larger than ours had "sleeping porches" and people used them; we were jealous. When the Demon moved to town in May or June, we gradually got accustomed to his tricks. We slept on the floor, brought out the fans, rode our bikes really fast to cool off, and drank anything with ice in it. Meanwhile, old men with beer guts and Bermuda shorts sat in the front yards complaining about the weather.

Although the low may be in the upper 50s tonight, I'm throwing open all the windows, going outside, and drinking a toast to the Demon. Give him time. He's just warming up. S

Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond.

For an essay by H. Watkins Ellerson about the death of Anne Bancroft, click on Back Page at www.styleweekly.com.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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(Paul Simon)

Soaring from "The Graduate" to crashing and burning at "The Big Chill."

© 2005—H. Watkins Ellerson

Long hair. Long hair was a totemic icon in the late 1960's, for both guys and gals and a bitter point of contention for many others. My own hair was never very long, but I liked it on the ladies. Back then, long-haired Katherine Ross was a lust-muffin for a lot of guys, and many of us were envious of Benjamin Braddock's dilemma of lackluster courting of her character, Elaine Robinson, in "The Graduate" while having illicit, hot adultery with her perfectly coiffed, "middle-aged" mama. (Dustin Hoffman should be so lucky. Nobody cared it was acting.) Most guys my age nurtured the fantasy of sex with the seductive 35-year-old Mrs. Robinson brilliantly rendered by Anne Bancroft. We never knew her given name; she was always "Mrs," which lent even more mystery and attraction to the idea. Though some of us also fantasized about an encounter with the long-haired, plain-vanilla daughter, she was totally eclipsed by the mother. Katherine Ross has aged along with the rest of us, and now "Mrs. Robinson" has gone -- forever. Most of us lost our relative innocence with Benjamin in "The Graduate." Our journey toward redemption with "The Big Chill" has been sidetracked in many ways.

Those of us born in the late 1940s and early 1950s are truly middle-aged now, and we are as differentiated as the members of any other "generation," notwithstanding the Baby-Boomer pigeonholes into which so many marketing types and journalists wish to cram us. Many of us arrested as our hardened, cynical selves exemplified by William Hurt's character in "The Big Chill" without any such redemption. We hold ourselves up to the light and try to see the homogenized, media-generated Boomer archetype in ourselves, but to no avail. None of us ever got to make love to "Mrs. Robinson" or "Elaine" for real, and because they never really existed, that is probably a good thing. Yet one thing we all pretty much share is the intensity of our aversion to getting older, and that seems to be what is driving the marketing bus. Most of us think of ourselves as forever young enough to walk in Benjamin Braddock's flippers. Most of us aging guys who "graduated" with Benjamin Braddock in the late 1960's will forever remember "Mrs. Robinson," while few will remember "Elaine." I shall always treasure the lust in my heart created by Anne Bancroft's intense performance in "The Graduate."

I was also quite interested by Anne Bancroft's long-term marriage to the great funnyman, Mel Brooks. Somehow that fits: a "love totem" married to a comic genius; "Springtime for Hitler" meets "Mrs. Robinson," proof that each had great tastes in the opposite sex. I truly envied Mr. Brooks his comedic achievements and his companionship to Ms. Bancroft.

So life passes by and we dote on our offspring; we deplore their failures and take pride in their accomplishments. We dread what the future will hold for them as we wondered about our own. We want to caution them against all the false turns and dead ends that we discovered (as if for the first time ever), but most of us should understand they will just have to find that out for themselves. We should warn them about the futility of following "role models" and the traps of fantasy romances, all to no avail.

Listening to NPR recently, I heard a clip of an interview with Ms. Bancroft mildly complaining about the preoccupation of many identifying her with "Mrs. Robinson." I understand her annoyance, but I wanted her to understand what I was feeling also. And I never did get into "plastics," as Mr. Robinson exhorted Benjamin to do.

So, with the untimely death of Anne Bancroft I shall simply say, with total affection that just about all of us, not just Jesus, will forever love "Mrs. Robinson" more that she will know.


© 2005—H. Watkins Ellerson


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