Five Eau Claire Summers
balancing work and play in the Chippewa Valley for more than 30 years
My youth could have been charted using the expanding radius of how far I was allowed to bike during the summer. Right after we moved to town in 1990, my range ended at Mitscher Park and TJ’s house over on Nixon Street. Then I graduated to Little Professor Books and its rack of Marvel comics in Shopko Plaza. The arrival of the Fairfax pool ballooned my personal map even further, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1992 that I finally came of age. That was the year Mom said I could bike to Cover to Cover Comics on Barstow Street downtown.
By the early 1990’s the malls had sucked the life from the heart of the city, and what remained was, well, a little run down. Still, few memories I have compare to flying down State Street hill, wind whipping my hair, drunk on freedom, racing towards adolescence, and the new issue of Amazing Spider-Man and the very definition of a perfect summer day.
This is how cool I was in high school: I drove a 1985 Mercury Lynx, manual transmission, and the homemade mixtape stuck in the tape deck had both Blues Traveler AND Spin Doctors. I rolled into the Oakwood Mall parking lot in this fashion nearly every day the summer between my junior and senior years of high school for my shifts at Tradehome Shoes.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was learning what summer actually is. Leisure is earned through work. Relaxation wedged in between responsibilities.
The bliss of that particular summer wasn’t to be found in lacing up tan Naturalizers and slipping them onto the feet of Tradehome’s elderly female customers. But that work funded all the nights at the Gemini Drive-In and the hidden gatherings deep in Lowes Creek park on top of the Pier One pyramid. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was learning what summer actually is. Leisure is earned through work. Relaxation wedged in between responsibilities.
Teaching is a difficult, overwhelming job that comes with one amazing perk: summers off. It’s indeed true that lots of teachers need to pick up second jobs, spend copious amounts of their “time off” planning for the upcoming school year, and use June, July, and August to recover from the ravages of the school year. But also, summers off are totally awesome.
The problem is, no one explains to new teachers that a break that long requires planning, lest they succumb to the scourge of teens and preteens everywhere: boredom. The summer after my first year teaching at Memorial High School, I completed Playstation II’s Ratchet and Clank. Afterward, I played Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando. Then, having had my fill of video games, I finished Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal. Not surprisingly, I gained about ten pounds that summer, and I was reminded that summers, while glorious, don’t come easy. Recreation takes work.
Summer is a time for kids. So why are they so bad at it? When my children were seven and five, they never had any ideas for how to fill the long, bright days. So, good old Dad to the rescue. We climbed Mount Simon and the tower on top of Elk Mound. We explored all the corners of Phoenix Park, Carson Park, and Owen Park. We logged uncountable hours at Fairfax pool. The best summer I had as a parent took an unbelievable amount of organization and Herculean calf muscles for all the hiking, climbing, and biking. Fortunately, memories of all that effort have faded while the joy of sharing the city I love with my kids remains.
I’ve never worked harder than I did last summer. This time, it wasn’t growing up, selling shoes, teaching, or parenting. Instead, I built a patio. Just me, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow (and a little help from my brother and neighbor). I demolished our old deck, then constructed a 400-plus square foot expanse of hand-laid concrete block, along with pea gravel wells and a mulched border. On numerous evenings last fall, my wife and I sat on the result of three months’ worth of hard labor, and that bit of relaxation was worth more than anything summer had offered.
Now, summer of 2022 looms large. So does my task list. Time to get to work.