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Sweet heat

IT'S hot, in the 90s, and I'm seven or eight years old, paddling and somersaulting in the public pool. My mom's watching at pool's edge -- knees tucked up under her -- reading a thick paperback. Periodically I yell at her to watch me do some trick. I've just seen a water ballet, and I know how to stand on my hands underwater. I swim until my eyes sting, my lips turn blue, and my teeth chatter. And when I get out I lie on the sunbaked cement with no towel and watch my wet body-print shrink as it dries, and feel the heat soak through me until it's time to cool off again.

I'm nearly 20 years older now, but summer hasn't changed much since then. Summer is still a time to plunge into, a time for flexing muscles and lounging in sweet, enveloping heat. When summer begins, I want to stand on my hands underwater. I crave soft-serve vanilla ice cream in a plain cone. My hands itch to hold the handlebars of a sturdy Stingray or the slightly oily chains of a swing. I pay more attention to children in summer, eavesdropping on their conversations, as if by listening to them I might

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somehow become part of their group.

Just out of college, at my first job, I drove my co-workers crazy with the question ``What are you doing this summer?''

The answer was always the same. ``Working,'' they'd say, smiling at me as Queen Victoria might have smiled at an impertinent court jester. Steeped in the 9-to-5 work ethic, they heralded summer's arrival with jealous longing tempered by a sense of responsibility. Working, they daydreamed about extended vacations sunning on tropical beaches. Vacationing, they faced the reality of limited time, substituting the luxury of slow-motion sunning with obligatory sightseeing at breakneck pace.

The summers of my childhood presented me with the opposite problem. As the long, hot days dragged on, I stretched my imagination trying to think of amusing ways to fill them. Those were days when nothing I could think of seemed good enough, when I tossed aside perfectly fine books and rejected perfectly fine friends. ``I'm bored,'' I whined to my mother, challenging her to assign me window washing, weeding, anything to fill the empty days.

By the end of summer I counted the days until school started, the way I counted the days until Christmas. The last few weeks of summer were always the best, the breathless, waiting ones when I wondered who my new teacher would be and whether there'd be new kids in class. Then I swam longer in the public pool, pedaled my bike harder down the forest trails in my Oregon neighborhood, and stayed out later after dinner to savor the last warm nights of the season.

When I was a kid, school brought summer to a close I never doubted. Already cooler, the days began to shrink as the leaves turned and shriveled on the trees. But now I live in a land of nearly perpetual summer. I impatiently wait for autumn winds to blow the air clear, stray clouds to soften the sun's glare, and distant mountains to introduce themselves once again.

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