Summering in analysis paralysis

The pressure to maximize summer fun in Madison.
A white kayak rests upside down on saddle horses in the grass by a stone building.
Raub had high hopes for this kayak when he bought it midwinter.

The pressure to maximize summer fun in Madison.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

It’s 5:30 a.m. and I am sitting in my backyard with a cup of coffee and a book. I’m trying to concentrate on the open pages in front of me but I can’t help but feel my eye drawn to the kayak on the other end of the patio, propped upside down on saw horses. When I picked it up last January, deeply discounted and precariously poking up through the passenger seat of my Rav4, I was heavily convinced I would be out on the lake every day the weather was over 70ºF. As of this writing, it is August 3 and I’ve taken it out three times.

It’s not that kayaking is a hassle. I live close enough to Lake Monona that I can prop it up on a kayak trolley and walk it down to the water in under 10 minutes. It’s just that, well, summer in Madison can be overwhelming. Jazz sets on a cocktail bar patio, outdoor movies at the Memorial Union Terrace, day trips up to Devil’s Lake for a hike, Olbrich Park Beer Garden, summer music festivals—all dizzy summer dreams I had while shoveling snow from my driveway in February that haven’t come to pass yet. And there’s still time! But, you know, come on. Let’s be realistic.

This summer has been dry overall with limited rainfall and low humidity, but wild temperature swings, record pollen numbers punishing those with allergies, and repeated Canadian wildfire smoke warnings haven’t been pleasant for outdoor explorers. Even the nicest days have to compete with something else: the general malaise of being a millennial with historically low income and historically high debt. I’m not sure how many paddles up Starkweather Creek in my discounted kayak I need to help me forget that, despite having a full-time writing job, I have to spend evenings and weekends freelancing technical documents to subsidize my bills. Still, summer is important—especially with COVID-19 transmission levels in constant state of unreported flux.

Because I’m an immunocompromised fella, fun in the sun is one of the only safe ways for me to socialize. Outdoor seating at restaurants is clutch for taking advantage of the weather, but Madison has issues with consistency: numerous times this summer my partner and I have rolled up to a restaurant only to learn their patio just wasn’t set up that day. And with most places designating their outdoor tables as first come, first serve only, reservations for guaranteed dining al fresco are off the, well, outdoor table. Even if we do manage to get out of the house, it can feel like the city is waging a demoralizing campaign to get us to stay home.

That isn’t to say I’ve been couch-napping away every nice afternoon underneath a ceiling fan with AC blaring—we made it to a few Madison Mallards games, I’ve ridden my bike to the Henry Vilas Zoo on a day off from work, and we’ve had plenty of memorable meals under the pink skies of twilight (when the tables are available). We’ve taken mid-morning walks to the new neighborhood bakery, had friends over for backyard pizza, snagged late-night ice cream, and sipped wine in a shady garden. It’s just that, sometimes, a nagging voice in the back of my mind repeats a burning question: is it enough?

Truly tackling a Madison summer is exhausting, especially when everyone my age has been beaten down by analysis paralysis. And with more choices for how to spend leisure time with less actual leisure time available, sometimes the decision of what to do on a warm summer night feels as insurmountable as the student debt my generation is saddled with. Summering UW students may hold a monopoly on tossing a frisbee in the park, but everyone pushing 40 (like me) absolutely owns contemplating what choosing to throw a frisbee even means at a time like this—frolicking in the park? In this economy?

Ah, to be a blissful himbo shirtless in the sun-streaked grass, arm outstretched with a perfect rotation kissing the disc as it releases from your fingers to sail blissfully over to the outstretched hand of your peer. Must be nice. But maybe I can learn something watching the young and carefree cavorting lakeside as I drive past on my way to buy more toilet paper. Maybe the key to summer is bursting forth under blue skies to the nearest patch of green and just letting the day happen to you. Spontaneous Lake Loop laps on your 10-speed! Pickup soccer games with strangers at the field! Drinking 20 beers on a blanket and then sobering up so you can drink 20 more around a bonfire that night! Texting Jen to see if she’s gonna go that that thing but not hearing back but having Jen’s friend text you that John’s dad’s cabin is free if you can borrow Sean’s car to get up to Baraboo and what does it mean that she texted you and Jen never texted you back and is it time to spiral endlessly into a melting pile of emotional terror or should you catch that football before it cracks your nose in two?

Maybe an existential summer is more universal than I had imagined. But if I can’t look to the nation’s youth for how to assuage my warm-weather weariness, then who? Boomers? Let’s be serious: I, too, would consider purchasing joy in the form of a lakefront cabin and pontoon boat if it was an available option, but we’ve been over the whole money thing. No amount of forgone avocado toast will ever add up to swapping out a standard motor for a $13,000 90-horsepower beast onto a 22-foot floating barge to turn a waterborne barbecue platform into a wakeboard-towing lake monster. I hope John and crew are enjoying tubing at John’s dad’s cabin on John’s dad’s boat.

So, we’re once again back where we started. Staring at a resting kayak, only now with an empty coffee cup and the beckoning of a beautiful day. Decisions have to be made: where to go, what to do, and how to pull it off now that the days are getting shorter again. There’s no right answer, of course, because there never was one. For every two-hour block of time, there are 20 possible outdoor activities. But no one cares if you do any of them. That decision is between you and the Sun God streaking through the sky on his blazing chariot. So maybe start small, brew some more coffee, and take the dog on a stroll down to the beach. Or maybe, just maybe, as your hand hits the door handle, you hear the perfect siren song of your couch calling to you under the soft whinny of the ceiling fan spinning lazily overhead. After all, summer couch naps just kinda hit different.

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