Sunday, August 10, 2014

Summertime, and the Living Is....

As we work our way through summer in Beijing, I think often of the line attributed to Henry James: "Summer afternoon -- summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."

Mr. James never spent a summer in Beijing.

Granted, some of my whining today is the result of my upbringing. I have to blame my parents, who had the audacity to be schoolteachers. For them -- and by default for us kids -- summertime meant lazy days at home. "It's a beautiful day -- go outside and PLAY," my mother would order, and we would. Summer is the sound of crickets, Little League games being announced at the green, the put-put of boats going down the river, and the smell of cut grass.

And some of my whining is the result of the house we own in DC. There, a summer afternoon often meant sitting on the front porch with an iced tea and a pile of newspapers. Or if I was "working," sitting on the patio with a laptop and a cell phone.

Beijing summer is the antithesis of all that. On bad air days, it might as well be winter because most of us linger indoors with air cleaners and air conditioners simultaneously running, amusing ourselves with television series and long whiny blog posts. On good air days, you still have to deal with the heat and humidity. It's impressive that a city that can get so bone-chilling cold in winter can switch around and be so oppressively sticky and hot in the summer.

Rare are the days when both the air quality and the temperature are right. But even on those days, there's yet another dilemma: no front porch. If I want to be outside, I have a couple of options: one of the hard benches lining the sidewalks at Seasons Park; a bench or a wooden chair at a local restaurant, where I might be influenced to start drinking beer at 2:33 in the afternoon; or the Seasons Park pool, where there are four already-occupied lounge chairs and a flagstone patio that is harder than any other matter known to man.

Yesterday I opted for another option. We have a lounge chair, bought a couple years back to solve the seating problem at the pool. It's heavy and unwieldy, but I lifted it out of the closet and took the elevator down to a little pergola area not far from the front door of building 22.

I set up my chair, opened my iPad to the New Yorker, and read for about an hour. I may even have dozed off a bit. Did I get a few strange looks? No doubt, but I get strange looks anyway much of the time. Was it a Henry James moment? No. The ambient noise was construction work, car horns beeping, and old men spitting on the sidewalk.

One of these mornings, I'm gonna rise up singing. Until then, I'll just hush.

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