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The endless summer of 2020 that ran me ragged

Summer began early on the morning of April 8, my 60th birthday. I had slept poorly and it took a few seconds to register where I was. Aside from the single mattress on which I’d tossed and turned, the room was empty. I woke, dressed, went down to the garage, got in the car, and headed for the supermarket.

Maybe I could flash my driver’s license to the masked gatekeeper of the automatic door, get senior early-bird admission, and score some toilet paper. The shelves were picked clean at 6:15 a.m., but being far and away the youngest customer in the store provided some solace. Sixty is just a number.

I work and live at a boarding school. We were open for online learning only. In March, right before COVID hit, I developed allergies to my campus apartment: wheezing, watery eyes, stuffy nose. My wife watched me get worse and then told me to move back into the house we had been trying fruitlessly to sell. “See if you get better there,” she said. I did.

We had spent 17-years in that house, but, two years ago as new empty-nesters, we moved all our stuff out, refinished the floors, and repainted everything in neutral colors on the advice of our Realtor. We got no offers, so maybe they were the wrong shades of neutral. Hearing I was back and about my mode of living, my neighbor said “it sounds like a frat house.”

“Yeah,” I replied, “in Pottery Barn colors and without the booze or sex.”

I was teaching from my classroom via Zoom. Every morning, I would shave, put on a shirt and tie, don a jacket —normal classroom attire at our school— and head to the screen. Coming in from Pottery Barn Abstentious Frat Headquarters, though, that routine had soured. I skipped the shave and threw on a turtleneck and jeans. No one would see me from the waist down anyway. I grabbed a big cup of coffee. I had stopped trying to lecture from day-one of online learning, and a slightly casual look would help me lead free-flowing discussions about the articles and book chapters I had assigned. I would aim for a “friends in a coffeehouse” internet ambiance.

Teaching done, it occurred to me that no matter how much effort I devoted to lessons I would have more free time than usual, a lot more. No coaching, dorm duties, study halls, refectory meals, Saturday classes, dances, or pre-graduation rituals. I had intended to usher in my sixties by doing some traveling. That wouldn’t happen this summer, but a lot else could. I declared my birthday to be the start of summer vacation.

Having the longest summer break ever has been stimulating, and a lot of work. I decided to try actually doing all the yard work my wife has wanted me to do over a summer: gardening, mulching, weeding, etc. I’ve spent nearly $1,000 on annuals, mulch, weed-barrier, and gardening implements. I’ve gotten the worst case of poison ivy in my life, and the yard is about 60 percent there. Need to put it in overdrive if I’m going to finish before school starts.

Summer is also my time to get in kick-butt shape, and I’ve been crushing it. A colleague introduced me to Strava, an app that tracks and logs my running, compares my times to others, and allows me to compete with my cross-country runners and fellow coaches for most weekly mileage. I love it so much that I have become “that guy” who checks everyone’s mileage near the end of the weekend and then runs as far as is necessary to claim bragging rights for most miles. It required 14 miles last Sunday and almost 17 the Sunday before, but I got it!

All this may sound a bit like work, but I’ve also begun to whittle away at the bucket list. I’ve always wanted to ride my motorcycle on a race track and imagined myself getting a knee down on the pavement and skimming corners at 100 miles an hour. I got the chance to do a track day in June.

I needed a full leather racing suit, new helmet, boots, and gloves– an ensemble that looked great but didn’t feel too cool in the heat. I didn’t get a knee down or hit 100 m.p.h., at least I don’t think so. I was too terrified by all the riders passing me to glance down much at the speedo. I saw “96” flash on the gauge, once, near the end of the track’s lone straightaway, but I’m a little unsure whether it was registering ambient temperature or speed. The good news is that I lost seven pounds, didn’t crash, and was even encouraged, weakly, by the organizer to come back again. Having spent a few hundred bucks on equipment, I might as well re-up next year.

I’m feeling the gravitational pull of fall, and it’s stressing me out. I’m reading more than ever, another summer goal, because, having started six books, I intend to finish them all before school starts. Got to get the yard done, keep running, and prep for both online and in-person teaching: asynchronous and synchronous learning, as the education gurus say.

My wife, son, and our two dogs have joined me in the house –which has lost its Zen-simple allure and gained in human and animal company, and furniture. The poison ivy has dried up, as has my bank account, and I’m exhausted. I hope mightily that school opens uneventfully. I miss synchronous teaching, which until recently I didn’t even know I had been doing all these years, miss my students, and need a break from break.

Chris Doyle teaches history at Avon Old Farms School in Avon.

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