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All we needed was a tent but we didn’t have one, because I was supposed to be “at the library” and she was supposed to be “working later on a Friday than usual.” We only had a blanket, some snacks, and water. It was hot just like all the other summer Fridays we’d spent together, but instead of meeting at her best friend’s apartment we were in one of the many little outposts of Griffith Park, committing our adultery on a blanket.

Reading Ray Bradbury’s work marked the first time I ever took reading seriously. The first time I borrowed his short story collection The Golden Apples of the Sun from the library was the first time I tried to appreciate fiction for grown-ups, the first time I wandered into the quiet neighborhood of the adult fiction stacks.

To be honest, I’ve always had a difficult relationship with fiction. I’m insufferably impatient. In the fifth grade, I enjoyed reading Bradbury’s short fiction because it was ofttimes really short. (I still can’t help but peek ahead to see the glorious white space marking the end of anything.) I liked that Bradbury wrote about space travel and elementary schools on Venus and what household appliances would do after the bomb dropped, but most of all I liked how he wrote about summer.

The tick tick tick of the bike on the potholed street,
scatter of gravel, twigs among shadows, glass
from a shattered whatever it was and flap
at the cyclist’s eye a burst of pigeon, rings
and sunlit feathers and tick tick tick the bird
stays with him, both their heads in flight it seems,
wind in his ears he’s almost young again,

There is a place with roller coasters and wave swingers surrounded by champagne vineyards.

It is a two hours’ drive.We leave first thing in the morning because my daughters buckled themselves into the car soon after the break of dawn like precocious, barrette-wearing roosters.I hop behind the driver’s seat with a bottle of water and a disc of complied songs about summertime.The empty two-lane roads trace the swerve of the first track:Surfin’ U.S.A.

Through pasture and low forest, the white sun burns off the fog and the sheep would own the land if they could pull their faces out of the grass for even a second.The boulangeries in the unassuming villes have already sold out of pain au chocolat.My wife remarks that several weird, distant cousins live in a town we pass, but when, for God’s sake, would we ever find the time to visit them.In the backseat, the girls mouth the refrain “inside, outside, U.S.A.”

I was finishing off a bowl of lingonberry porridge yesterday morning when a helicopter suddenly swooped past my window. As it hovered, sirens began to wail. Air horns blared. Whistles whistled. Itching to witness some good old-fashioned gore and violence, I grabbed my camera, favorite Batman blanket and matching gas mask, and sprinted to the normally serene river where I witnessed a scene of profoundly disturbing perversity:



















This was the annual Kaljakellunta or “Beer Float.” It has no official organization and doesn’t actually exist until the first raft hits the water. It’s illegal and theoretically dangerous as hell, since the point of the whole thing is to drink as much beer as possible while floating down a feces-hued river.

Sweating with delight, I sat and waited for the police to arrive and club a few revelers into sobriety. I waited. Then I waited some more. I fell asleep. Because the funniest thing happened: nothing. The floats floated and sank. Drunks imbibed and drank. People flocked and gawked. And the cops didn’t do anything except tell kids not to hurl themselves off the highway overpass (which they did anyway).

And yes, that is an open flame edging ever closer to the trees:








Whereas in the United States and other nations the National Guard would be summoned to corral, contain and eradicate the revelers, the peaceful Finns instead take the opposite tack. Instead of complaining about the trash generated by the ad hoc festival, they simply hire a fleet of dumpsters. Ambulances and medic boats idle by. Motorcycle cops roam the river banks making sure the hordes of tipsy girls are peeing in the grass and not in the middle of the bike paths.

Then everyone vanishes, leaving the riverbanks looking like an exploded carnival:







But volunteers will soon scoop up the aftermath. Because they know what summer is like in Finland: thoroughly unexciting. Finns also understand the best way to cope with hundreds of drunken youths celebrating the zenith of summer is by watching from afar and reminding themselves that in mere months all of Finland will look like this:








Though I’d personally rather give my pet polar bear an unanesthetized neutering than float down a sludgy, pissed-in and beer-stinking river, I enjoy witnessing things like Beer Float. It’s yet another reason why summer in the Republic of Finn is unlike anywhere else in the world.

Indeed, the point of summer here is that there is no point. It’s downright languorous. People take saunas and visit their cottages. Old men sunbathe beside the bike paths in pink undies or none at all. Children squish strawberries between their toes. Seagulls perch on your windowsill and belt out hour-long arias. If you want to entertain your partner with a sexy sunset dinner, you have six or seven hours in which to do so (and if you wait an hour you can cap off your date with a nice sunrise grope session.)

Of course with only a blip of quasi-darkness in the wee hours, summer is, for an insomniac such as myself, blurry and largely incoherent. And from what I gather – based on the ceaseless revving of scooters and smashing of bottles on our street – Finns generally don’t sleep much either. But that’s ok. We have winter for that. And then the drinking won’t be celebratory, but mournful, and the idea of sunburned kids on rafts will seem like nothing but a cruel, distant joke.

In summer of 2009, in a comment on my own piece, “Only one poem for the implosion of Capital”, I invoked Skelton for his leadership bringing female grace upon my pen.

 

Refresshyng myndys the Aprell shoure of rayne;
Condute of comforte, and well most souerayne;
Herber enverduryd, contynuall fressh and grene;
Of lusty somer the passyng goodly quene;

(Refreshing minds the April shower of rain;
Conduit of comfort, and well most sovereign;
Herber enverdured, continual fresh and green;    “Herber enverdured”: herb garden covered in greenery
Of lusty summer the passing goodly queen;)

 

Last year was a pretty good one for writing, but there must have been a superior, secondary, annual echo, because about a month ago, the goodly passing queen halted, pulled up a chair, and flourished a Midsummer birch wand.  Someone must have whispered my need in her ear.

Two wholly different riverbeds in the United States offer an official rock with a slide.

There are possibly more, and there may soon be less.But we would make sure to dip into these, one in North Carolina and one in Arizona, on our tour around the country.Because we’d been away from American natural spectacles and because an open swimming hole with a rock slide wasn’t actually supposed to exist in this new century, belonging to a rosier, bucolic past since replaced by concrete waterparks and videogame fitness.

I wasn’t sure how to categorise this little number – memoir or fiction? The people, places and background are all real enough, but I can state with certainty that the scene recounted here never happened and is therefore, technically, fiction.

It might be because this is my last summer in the Adirondack mountains of New York, for a while at least.

Or because my friend Amy is obsessed with the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico and their barefoot running.

Or because I just quit my job of nearly 10 years.

In any case, I’m conducting another experiment,

All kinds of animals live at my parents’ camp. My parents go every weekend, wake up early and sit on the porch sipping their coffee and watching the animals go about their lives. While some homeowners along the lake try to run the animals off (the owls and geese leave too much poop), my parents pretty much love every last one that takes up residence in their yard. They’ve put up birdhouses for a few different kinds of birds, including purple martins and wood ducks. But they also loved the water snakes, harmless to humans, that could be seen swimming toward shore with a small fish in their jaws, trying to get on land to enjoy their catch.

But this weekend, we found a snake in one of the purple martin houses. Each of the houses is actually a cluster of little abodes for several bird families mounted on top of a tall pole, specifically for the purpose of keeping predators out. Around 9:30 a.m., I was out on the end of the dock, lying in the sun. Dad had gone out of buy groceries for the day. Mom came to make sure I didn’t fall asleep in the sun, and on her way, she noticed the snake. By the time Mom walked all the way to the end of the dock, got me and came back, the snake was totally inside one of the houses except for the last couple inches of his tale. We were sure he was still there by the way the mother bird flew frantic circles around the house. She’d dive in as though to attack, stop short, hover near the entrance to her house, then fly away again. She wouldn’t land on any part of the house, but she kept trying to attack and pulling up short of crashing right into the birdhouse like a kamikaze. Mom and I stood watching and cheering her on. “Go on, grab his tail! Pull him down,” we told her, unwilling to do it ourselves. Unsure of how we could help or whether we really should, we went inside.

Around noon, my brother John arrived. He’d driven down from New Orleans because it was rare for me to have a chance to make this trip home, so we hadn’t seen each other in about six months. John and Dad got home around the same time, and Mom and I told them about the snake. The four of us started to brainstorm on ways to get the snake out of the birdhouse. “Well, we can’t just shoot him,” Dad said. Our neighbor had a Purple Martin house, too, and a snake got in it, so the neighbor stood right under the birdhouse with his shotgun and shot through the floor of the birdhouse. He got the snake, but he also blew the roof off the house. John thought maybe we could use a water hose to flood the snake out and then shoot him. We agreed that this was a pretty good place to start, so we mobilized. John started pulling out the hose, Dad went and got his shotgun and a couple shells. Admittedly, we thought we were hilarious.

As we stood out there on the lawn, sweating after only the slightest exertion, we realized spraying the snake would only cool him off. He’d probably be grateful and perfectly content to stay exactly where he was. We tried anyway, turning the hose to the highest water pressure it could muster, but by the time the water reached the birdhouse window, a good 10 or 12 feet up, it must have felt like just a gentle summer shower to the snake. He stayed put.

Then Dad remembered that he had a fishing pole that could be extended until it would reach the birdhouse. He grabbed it and used the pole to reach into the birdhouse. I’m not sure what he hoped to accomplish that way, but he waved the fishing pole around once it was inside the birdhouse window. All along, our idea was to annoy the snake enough to make him get out of that birdhouse, but he must have just coiled up inside, which was a pretty good idea on his part. If the fall from the birdhouse didn’t hurt him, being shot once he hit the ground sure would. When wiggling a fishing pole at him didn’t help, we retreated to the house to think on it and have lunch. We sat around the kitchen table having red beans and rice with red wine. Soda or even margaritas might have been a better choice, but we like a drink with our meals, and the margaritas are so sugary they make my teeth feel all wrong. So we had a glass of red wine, and about the time we finished eating, our cousin Greg and his girlfriend Sally showed up.

We’d planned to probably fish or kayak around the lake or possibly take the boat out, or maybe just sit around sipping margaritas for the rest of the afternoon. I was thinking of lying out on the deck again later in hopes of reducing the glow from my lily white legs. But we couldn’t commence the lazy afternoon without telling them about the snake. Greg and Sally had a beer and the rest of us had our wine while we rehashed everything we’d tried through the morning.

Rejuvenated by our lunch and our new company, and questionably inspired by our wine, our troop of six marched back out to the birdhouse to try again. This time, I picked up Dad’s camera on the way out. First, John shook the birdhouse. Water, we had concluded, was too good for the snake, since he was most likely just a water snake who’d found his way up from the lake for a snack. But if the goal was to irritate him, then shaking the birdhouse would probably do it, and it did. He stuck his tongue out at us, but showed no signs of exiting. He must have known he was safer in there than out on the ground with us.

Greg then made a noose with fishing line, tied it to the end of the fishing pole, and pushed it through the birdhouse window. “Heeeeere snakey snake,” he said. “Stick your head in the hole.” He waved the pole around inside the birdhouse, and the snake dodged. Dad’s next idea was to tie fishing hooks to the pole and try to pull the snake out. That didn’t work, either. John went back to shaking it. We’d hoped to preserve the bird nests, in case the birds weren’t already too scared to come back after having their home invaded by a snake, but after being soaked with a water hose and shaken, parts of the nests were flying out of the windows, and it was clear that the fight was between us and the snake. The birds were gone, and their eggs probably were, too, as Mom had seen the gluttonous snake make his way from one window of the birdhouse to another, making his rounds and filling up. Now we were disturbing his afternoon nap, and as John shook the birdhouse, it seemed the snake wanted to unload some wares. We started to notice something bulging out the window, and at first we thought it was the side of the snake where he was swollen from the eggs he’s stolen. But then, out fell a bird. An adult bird that might have been sitting on eggs or might have gone into the house without knowing what was waiting inside. After the bird fell to the ground and the snake recoiled himself comfortably inside, we knew what had to be done.

Greg went and got some tools from the garage. Dad got his shotgun back out. I was still hesitant about killing the snake — hoped we could shake him out of the birdhouse and let him slither away, maybe even shake him right into the lake. But the others seemed sure he would continue to hunt our birds, and in any case, he had no business climbing all the way up that pole to get those eggs. That was the whole point of placing the house so high and away from trees. His being up there to begin with was a sure sign he had to go, I guess.Together, John and Greg dismantled the pole. Top-heavy, it immediately tipped over in John’s hands, so he went on with the shaking operation. We all leaned closer to see if the snake would come out.

After our day long standoff, we barely expected to see him, but then out he came, about half of him at once, all muscular — not flopping out like the full, lazy beast we expected. I grabbed hold of the camera and bolted back to the safety of the walk way. The snake hit the ground and kept moving, but before I could turn around to get his picture, there was a gunshot. The first one went wide, but the second shot got him, severed the head and first six inches or so of the snake from the other foot of his body. The upper part continued to squirm pathetically, so John chose to put him out of his misery with a third shot. I chose not to take a picture of the dead snake. I picked up my wine glass and went back inside, and that was the last I saw of our snake.