You can tell it’s fall in Wisconsin when people start asking this question: “How was your summer?”
We never ask about fall or spring. I mean, why bother? Those seasons might be nice, but they last about ten minutes. I can sum up all I have to say about fall with the word “leaves.” “Flowers” is how I account for Spring. If we asked about winter (which we don’t), we’d get one of two answers, depending on the year: “It was bad,” or “It wasn’t so bad.” You might describe a colonoscopy the same way.
But asking someone “how was your summer?” is an exercise in pure pleasure, like gossiping with your best friend the morning after an awesome party. I never mind hearing about someone else’s summer. When I ask this safest of questions, I’m not just making small talk. I hang onto every delicious detail they care to share: the trips to Door County, Devil’s Lake, Madeline Island. The long bike rides, the cabin, the river, the lake, the garden, the corn on the cob. Fishing, kayaking, swimming, waterskiing, campfires, reunions, outdoor concerts and plays, street festivals, picnics, hikes, triathlons. The pool, block parties, farmers markets.
We sound so active, so vibrant, so alive! And we are, because we’ve defrosted. Midwestern summers are so perfect that we actually feel sorry for people on the coasts who couldn’t find Wisconsin on a map if it were blinking neon. They can have their mountains and their oceans. We’ve got inland lakes and red barns and prairies full of cone flowers and Shasta daisies. It’s so picturesque here that I sometimes feel like I’m trapped inside a children’s storybook illustration.
We appreciate the fleeting nature of summer the way we savor every moment together when we’re in a long distance romance, like when we walk out of the grocery store into warmer air. We forget the earwigs and mosquitoes and broken air conditioners and stumble lovesick into fall, high on golden light, remembering the aching beauty of deep green soybean fields, red barns, a cow’s slow blink. Light glimmering on the water. A blue heron watching us from the shore.
Summer in Wisconsin is a thing, the crown jewel set off by seasons that bring it to us, take it away again, and make us almost forget it ever happened. To ask about someone’s summer is to do them – and ourselves – a favor. This Midwestern custom of performing public post-mortems on our summers is how we make this painfully short season last a little longer.
So tell me: “How was your summer?”