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Remembrance of a Summer Past

It’s been a long summer, it seems, longer than I’d anticipated. And while the calendar says we still have a few weeks before fall takes hold up here, high among the aspens of the San Juans, those of us who brave the deep snows and long winters know that the mountainsides will soon begin taking on their red and yellow stripes well before the clock runs out on our sweetest season.

By the time this column has gone to print, my children will have returned from their summer in Colorado Springs where they spend time with their mom and my parents. And, if the return doesn’t mark the end of my summer, exactly, it spells the end of my carefree days as a Pagosa Springs bachelor (which can be a suspect and unseemly role).

Not that I took much advantage of my childless status over the summer. With a house to be built (details elsewhere in The PREVIEW section) and a stack of books to be tackled (it was the summer of Robertson Davies, Eudora Welty and Vladimir Nabokov), the wild times I’d anticipated were rather tame in comparison to the reality.

No big city, bright lights; no dancing girls and rivers of champagne; no limousines and late night debauchery.

In fact, my carousing was pretty much limited to happy hour tacos and dollar PBRs at the Bear Creek, the occasional tete-a-tete over fish tacos and PBRs at Kip’s or, when we had clear skies, a couple of microbrews at Pagosa Brewing. Otherwise, dad stayed in with the slowly diminishing stack of books.

A very long summer, indeed.

In previous years, the kids had come back to stay with me, a week here, a week there, making time for camping, attending the county fair and especially, being here for the Fourth of July parade and carnival.

This year, however, the kids elected to stay on the Front Range. When they told me they wouldn’t be coming for the Fourth I confess that I was a little hurt — and very lonely. Looking forward to having them at the parade and tossing around money I didn’t have at the carnival, spending time I didn’t have in an East Fork campground, I was crestfallen by their decision.

Apparently, a week later, they had come to regret their choice.

Unfortunately, the county fair was out as well and I realized I’d be spending my entire summer without my kids.

Given more than enough rope to hang myself, I nevertheless survived.

Now, preparing for their imminent return and the ostensible end of my summer, I look forward to what lies in store while looking back on the previous months to see what was accomplished.

In the weeks to come, of course, are the reams of paperwork I’ll be pulling out of backpacks, checking the day’s lessons and ensuring the new lessons get completed. Last year, I was rather appalled at the amount of paperwork sent home. Deciding to stack it all up over a month’s time for my own little experiment, the stack came to about 16 inches high by the end of the month. For three kids.

I’m hoping the school district has, in its struggle to square a diminishing budget, made a concerted effort to cut back on the amount of paper and printing it uses.

Also, with three kids, you’ll find me out on the soccer fields four days a week. Providing snacks for 60 kids, at least twice a month (that’s a lot of oranges to slice, my friends), most likely while I stand in the freezing rain and endure an early-October zephyr.

Of course, there will be some Friday evenings at Golden Peaks Stadium watching Pirate football. Bundling my three up as we move later into the season, shelling out parts of my paltry paycheck for trips to the snackbar while I take my toasty spot in the press box.

And with two birthdays in September (Eldest Child and Mister), I should probably plan on two trips to the Durango Recreation Center (with two friends in tow) at the least, sleepovers at most.

Yes, looking forward, the mind reels.

Looking back, it’s a mixed bag. My novel, still a loose conglomeration of random notes and a confused mess of post-modernist drivel and post-post-modernist reconciliation, seems relatively untouched, frustrated by my inability to decide what my voice really sounds like. Hoping that I’d spend more time at my computer working on the thing, I unfortunately spent more time than I’d have liked with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

On the other hand, the house has gone up with amazing progress, a real testament to the dedication and hard work of Habitat for Humanity volunteers. It’s amazing to see rooms and a roof, siding up and utilities in, especially since it was just a big hole in the ground soon after the kids left for the summer. We’re heading out to the build site on Saturday to join in on the “Seeds of Learning Build Day” with me hammering nails and the kids riding their bikes in our new neighborhood.

And, as mentioned previously, the stack of books that I had set aside for my kidless downtime.

When my kids are with me, literature takes a back seat to life. During the weekdays, kids are dressed and pressed for school. Breakfast is made, consumed, dishes are done, homework is given a final check, permission slips are inventoried, backpacks are inspected to ensure no stray toys are being smuggled to school.

A final check on clothing (Eldest thinks flip-flops and capris are appropriate for any kind of weather, Middle Child likes her heels and Mister tends to put his clothing on backwards) before they head to the bus stop. Once their day begins, I start my own.

As I said, four days on the soccer fields and then back home. The dining room table carpeted with homework, books and pencils as I prepare dinner. We eat, clear plates, do dishes, baths and showers are attended to and, if everything goes well, we’ll play some chess or a few hands of Uno before tuck-in time, story time and the slow easing into whatever time I can grab for myself.

Usually exhausted and ready to just vegetate, any book feels like it weighs a ton and, if I can devote an hour to whatever I’m reading at that moment, I consider myself lucky. Because there’s more housework to be done, a load of laundry, e-mails to answer — stepping off of the carousel that is the life of a single dad can be a dizzying moment of merely allowing the rest of the planet to stop spinning so I can catch my bearings.

I may have a few more hours on the weekends to put my nose in a book, especially if my three are out playing, but a scant few. Usually weekends are for some deep cleaning — catching up on the housecleaning I missed during the week, more laundry, running kids to birthday parties or other social events, spending time hiking and exploring, riding bikes, playing Monopoly or other long, involved board games, watching movies, working in the yard, working on vehicles, grocery shopping, preparing for 4-H projects, working on larger projects for school ... a scant few hours can be stolen and, usually, my reading is a matter of indulgence that is not without constant interruption.

Thus, my downtime this summer was split between trying to seriously write and seriously read. Making choices for myself that would require intention and attention, I was reminded of a passage from Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” wherein he perfectly describes the mind of a reader that, given too little time and too many books, makes his selections wisely:

“In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which are frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you...And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too.”

Yes, my columns are usually about music but I must confess that, given the choice between books and CDs for a desert island, I’d choose books without missing a beat (excuse the pun). Months ago, on The SUN message board, several of us played a game in which we chose the five books we’d take if so stranded. I wrote:

The OED — anyone who doesn’t know what I mean shouldn’t be involved in this thread, anyway. I want at least one book that I will never tire of reading and (geeky as this sounds), I’ve had a fascination with words and dictionaries ever since I was a child. It’s a book I’d read every day on that island (and handy for any word I don’t recognize in my other selections.

“The Sound and the Fury,” William Faulkner — There are other Faulkner titles I’d want to bring (Absalom, Absalom!, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary) but The Sound and the Fury bears (and demands) repeated reading. Inventive, frightening and beautiful, it is, by far, the most influential novel for me, as a reader and as a writer.

“The Brothers Karamazov,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky — The first truly “modern” novel, I think, and I can never get to the bottom of it. Probably a disturbing selection for a desert island, too thought provoking, but then again, I would have nothing but time to fully digest its themes and ideas.

“The Magic Mountain,” Thomas Mann — A novel that can be read multiple times and still never feel confident that you’ve completely apprehended all of what Mann has said. A work of mysterious beauty and intellectual complexity.

“Madame Bovary,” Gustave Flaubert — I once told my best friend that this was “the quintessential novel” and I’ll stand by that assessment. We are at once appalled and fascinated by Emma Bovary’s fate yet we also relate on a deeply personal level with the reasons she makes her choices — which is the universal quality of art.

And five novels that require a desert island:

“In Search of Lost Time” (aka “Remembrance of Things Past”), Marcel Proust.

“Moby Dick,” Herman Melville.

“The Divine Comedy,” Dante.

“Tom Jones,” Henry Fielding.

And, of course, “Ulysses,” James Joyce.

Later in Calvino’s passage, he adds, “but this relative relief is then undetermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.”

That was my feeling of this summer and, having those books available for my children, I can inscribe the inner sleeves with a terse reminder that, “I’ve made my choices — now, it’s time to make your own.”

jim@pagosasun.com