S.O.S.

This is a piece I wrote some years back before the advent of Journeys Into The Night. Seems appropriate for today!

For sun-lovers, it has begun: the unofficial start of the UK summer is here.

It’s that time when hopes soar and hearts warm in eager anticipation of a new season. The swimsuits, shorts and sandals are on display. Gardeners are flocking to nurseries and greenhouses. Owners of summer cottages are sweeping away cobwebs, airing out rooms and restocking pantries. Newspaper ads are promoting barbeque grills and patio furniture, camping gear and luxury vacation packages. What fantasies these ads inspire as summer-lovers dream of sunlit hours relaxing with friends, reading long-awaited books, cultivating bountiful gardens and walking beaches or woodland trails.

But for me, these fantasies have long been elusive. With the exception of one or two recent summers, this time of year now ranks as an endangered species of a season, its already wildly fluctuating and fleeting days made shorter by invisible thieves, subtly diminishing the season’s glory.

These gremlins begin by stealing time — precious golden hours — through long workdays and “working vacations.” They also rob us of comfort. Across the country, Britons spend summer days shivering in over-air-conditioned offices, restaurants and stores. Permanently closed windows block out bird songs and gentle breezes. Summer also slips away as overzealous merchants start dressing mannequins in wools and wintry colours in July.

It all stands in sharp contrast to my memories of childhood in the Caribbean, where the sunshine stretches endlessly. There was always time to watch fireflies blink in the twilight. And time to watch Monarch butterflies emerge from pale-green cocoons.

The American poet May Swenson captures the mood when she writes,

Can it be there was only one

summer that I was ten? It must

have been a long one then.

Here in the UK, this Incredible Shrinking Summer calls for a new set of resolutions. New Year’s resolutions, serious and purposeful, centre on self-improvement. Summer resolutions, by contrast, focus more on self-fulfilment. They offer well-deserved rewards for the months of hard work that precede the season.

We need a summer preservation society. As the self-appointed president of the just-formed group Save Our Summers, or SOS (current membership: 1), I offer a few resolutions to preserve the pleasure of these essential months:

First, resolve to leave work earlier. Not early, not even necessarily on time, which these days is tantamount to leaving early — just earlier than usual. I used to remain in the office sometimes as late as 6.30 p.m. Now I’m on “summer time” and I leave no later than 5:30. Even half an hour helps…

Second, resolve to take a walk every day. Short or long, slow or fast, a walk offers an escape from Arctic buildings and a way to reconnect with the natural world.

Third, resolve to read part of a book every day. Remember those summer reading programmes at the public library when you were a child? After finishing a certain number of books, you’d get a certificate. Make a list of books, then reward yourself at the end of the summer for reading them.

Above all, the message floating on summer breezes is this: Resolve to slow down and catch the rhythm of the season. Pour a tall glass of lemonade, grab a book, find a comfortable chair, put your feet up and r-e-l-a-x.

But hurry. The start of summer clearance sales and back-to-school ads will be here before you know it. So will the August hum of the garden insects, the surest sign of all that autumn is approaching.

Remember the new battle cry: Save Our Summers. S.O.S.

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Simple smarts

I once went on a date with a girl with whom I had the following exchange:

Me: I just started reading this new book.

Girl: What is it?

Me: The Perfect Storm. It’s great.

Girl: Great? Excuse me? Pffft. To me, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is a great book. The Perfect Storm? Great? Please.

Needless to say, that was our only date. (You know how you often think of an awesome comeback to statements like that a little too late? If I were faced with that today, I’d gleefully retort, “What are you talking about? Nuts gave it an ‘A’!”) Her comment didn’t catch me by surprise, however; it was already clear from our first meeting that this girl had decided I was not a smart person. Not stupid, mind you, not unable to string together words in sentences without drooling on myself, but just not intelligent, not the way she, with her red-brick education and nice middle class upbringing, believed she was. How we actually ended up going out on a date still befuddles me.

But she was right, of course. Intelligence is one of the more nebulous, shifting concepts we have, and from my experience, if people consider you smart in a conventional fashion, you probably can’t change a tire. We all had that one person in our class who was a straight-A student, was involved in all the extracurricular activities, was accepted to a fancy private school, and typically wore her bra backwards.

At school in the Caribbean, I’m sad to say, I was that person (except for the bra thing, of course). Ninety-ninth percentile, on just about all the tests. I aced them all. When it came time for the 11-plus exam that everyone dreaded, I smashed that too, gaining entry to the country’s top secondary school. But after I received the result from my giddy school principal, she informed me my fly was open. And the day after winning a national essay competition and collecting a trophy for my efforts, I tried to change a lightbulb using a screwdriver.

How does one define intelligence? I’m excellent at trivia and bits of seemingly useless information. If you wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me which movies won the Oscar for Best Picture in the last decade or who holds the record for most wickets in a cricket season, I can tell you. (The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country For Old Men, The Departed, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King, Chicago, A Beautiful Mind and Gladiator; Tich Freeman, with 304 in 1928. Thank you, thank you.) Ask me why I threw the house keys in the bin yesterday and put the crumpled scrap of paper in my pocket instead, I have no answer… Get my drift?

They say that Einstein couldn’t tie his shoes, and, truth be told, I’m kind of grasping onto that idea. Because there are so many things in this world that I cannot do. To some people, not being able to do them makes me a moron. To others, it’s a sign of my intelligence.

It all depends on whom you hang around and what you value. When I’m back visitng the Caribbean, I sometimes try to tell myself that I’m smarter, that I had the otherworldly insight to leave, which the sorry minions I grew up with lacked. It’s incredibly stupid and condescending, of course, but I actually had the temerity to imply this to a friend there once. She looked at me. “David, you pay thousands a month in rent and you live thousands of miles from your family and best friends. I have a mortgage that’s half that, I can see my friends and family anytime I want, and I have a proper detached house near the beach with loads of outdoor space. Tell me again how smart you are.”

To change the subject, I sprung up a cerebral monologue about snot.

There is this girl I like. I think she’s really intelligent. There is no doubt in my mind.

I was describing her to another friend recently: “She’s smart. She’s creative. She’s ambitious and she has drive. I think she gets what’s important in life. She helps people and she also knows how to take care of herself. Doesn’t take shit from anyone. She seems to have the right idea about getting the most out of life, and she wants to do it on her own terms. When I look at everyone else I know, she’s just about one of the smartest people I’ve met for a long time.”

My friend was unimpressed. “So you’re saying that she’s really nice. That’s not smart. That’s nice.”

But I’m serious. To me, that’s what intelligence is. An understanding of your place in the world, the wisdom that comes with being comfortable with who you are, an inherent sense of empathy for every speck of humanity that crosses your path. That’s smart. Being able to realise what really matters.

In other words, I’m an idiot.

Kiss the girls and watch them fly!

As far as proper, meaningful ones go, I’ve kissed only 19 women in my life. Typically, my mates tell me that this number is somewhat low (you sluts!), but it doesn’t seem like it to me. Nineteen people who would share something as intensely personal and uniquely human as a kiss? Shit, I’d settle for that many people who will talk to me.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this lately — I’m trying to stop watching so much telly and wasting time on Facebook; what else am I supposed to do? — and I’ve decided that No. 20 is going to have to be special. I’ll be officially out of the teens, and I plan on celebrating the occasion more appropriately than I did No. 10. (I never told Sarah Whatshername she pushed me into double digits; I thought I was too mature for such a thing.)

Confession: You might find me to be a borderline psychopath for doing such a thing, but I do have a list in my head of every woman I’ve ever properly kissed, in chronological order. (By properly, I mean the kisses with real feeling — so the totally random hot Spanish girl in Camden a few weeks ago doesn’t count, though I wish we’d both been sober enough to exchange numbers.) I also have an alphabetical list, but I don’t bring that one out very often. I’ve always kept up these unofficial lists. But only recently have I etched it into stone. This list is very important to me, but maybe I’d have to talk to a psychologist before I try to determine any particular reason why.

Having such a list might seem trivial or even offensive to you but, I swear, this isn’t some kind of notches-on-the-bedpost exercise in self-congratulation; it’s sincere. I look at the names of these 19 women in wonder. Am I one of their more embarrassing partners? If asked if they had ever kissed me, would they admit it? Do they think of me fondly? Do they think of me at all? Considering that I’ve only spoken with two of the 19 in recent times — and I had the feeling one of them would rather be talking with anyone but me at the time — I guess I know the answers to those questions.

When I kissed the first girl, I should have had some kind of warning about the path my life would take. My first kiss was in primary school, behind the washrooms, during the school’s annual sports day events. Ah, school days!

Looking at such a list is a most disconcerting activity. It’s like reading the story of my life in outline form: Met this girl in the youth group, met this one at a friend’s party, met this one at work, met this one on the train, met this one in New York, met this one while recovering from the breakup of that relationship… The list exposes my flaws and excesses. The first time I kissed the first eight had nothing to do with alcohol; seven of the last 10 were during or after drinking.

It’s also fun to do statistical breakdowns of the list. Of the 19, six are now married, two are engaged, eight have children, 16 have graduate degrees, six have postgraduate degrees and one has now decided she’s a lesbian. Did I play a part in that last one? And does it say something that all six married ones got hitched to the guy they met right after me? Three were from my hometown, four from college or uni, 12 from the scary grown-up world. Weirdly, eight on the list are older than I am, including a shocking five in a row. I don’t know what that means, exactly; my only guess is that I reminded them of a little brother they picked on all the time, and they were trying to make amends.

The women also fall into different categories. Some were one-time aberrations, random occurrences that likely would be forgotten if it weren’t for this self-doubting guy with the laptop dredging them up from their rightful home in the subconscious (Stacy, Julianne, Sarah, Kate, Michelle and Sarita: 31 percent).

Then you have the false alarms, the ones I thought were a big deal at the time, but turned out to be, in retrospect, fond footnotes in the sand (Siân, Alison, Ruth and Terri: 21 percent). Like any human, I’ve had my share of the people who would have every right to hate me. (Well, I was probably a bit of an arsehole to them, and they probably do). I either stopped calling them, or didn’t say a proper goodbye, or things simply didn’t work out. Before you lash out at me, dear reader, make your own list, and see how many of these there are on yours (Amanda, Rachel, Nicole, Amy, Donna: an alarming 26 percent). Strangely, I’ve only really had one relationship that started with no expectations, ended with no expectations and had nothing particularly crazy happen in between. Kind of a perpetual dating holding-pattern (sorry, Jo, wherever you are: 5 percent).

Then there are the ones who stick in your head, the ones you never quite get over, the ones who pop up in your dreams every once in a while just to haunt you. They’re the ones most likely to spur one to write a blog to try to come to mental terms with the 19 women one has kissed. These may or may not have ended badly, but what’s most important is that they ended, and a part of me never quite came to terms with it. These women are the ones that if I ran into one of them on the street, I’d probably go and hide under a table, whimpering. They were too beautiful, too smart, too cool, too beloved by all to be wasting their time with me and it was of course inevitable they would eventually move on to bigger, better and less neurotic things (Nadia, Samantha and Laura: 15 percent).

I’ve always thought it might be cool to track down all 19 and find out what they’re up to, try to find some common theme among all of them to help me understand why I do some of the things I do, why I’ve turned out the way I have. After researching all their lives, I’d probably have enough material for a book, though I’m sure it would never work. Seems like such a project would be destined to be titled 19 Restraining Orders.

Which leads us to today. Now, understand, I’m hardly actively searching for No. 20. Good thing: Anyone reading this blog has probably already eagerly dismissed themselves from competition, if they hadn’t done so long before — and I’m in no hurry. In fact, 19 sounds like a good number to end on. It’s about in tune with what I’m used to; right on the precipice of a milestone, a new horizon, but stopping agonisingly short.

Nineteen is probably too many anyway. I have a good friend who has only ever kissed one person, his wife. They have a beautiful child, a happy home and matching retirement plans. They even have one of those cute wall hangings on their wall that says, “God Bless this Mess.” I used to have posters of Woody Allen movies about longing, loss and the absence of God on my wall. I’m sure my friend isn’t haunted by old girlfriends in his dreams. I’m sure he doesn’t have various women across the world who, if they think of him at all, do so with a little giggle or a snort. I think I like his life a little more; less complicated.

But one thing is certain. If there is a No. 20, I’ll have to tell her. Though I have a feeling if I do tell No. 20, I could be on the search for No. 21 pretty soon thereafter. Wish me luck!