Hard Tellin’

How to Out-Maneuver Unreasonably Short Vermont Summers

BY DAVE PRAAMSMA

Roundabout late August when the sun is setting earlier, the air is changing, and I become frustrated by our short summer season, I usually console myself with the knowledge that folks living in the Northeast Kingdom have difficulty even growing tomatoes. Now this might not be the most adult response to our abbreviated summers, but at least it gives me a little perspective.

In fact, I tried to confirm this recently in a carefully worded email to my sister-in-law who lives in those parts. There were of course the standard pleasantries. A couple of nice inquiries about the family. And then woven in as naturally as I could manage, the whole tomato question.

Admittedly, the whole business was predicated on the rather emotionally-unhealthy hope that her inability to grow a couple of Big Boy Tomatoes might somehow make me feel better down here in lower Vermont. But to my astonishment her response was overwhelmingly positive. Not a word of complaint.

“I think lots of people around here have little greenhouses so they can extend the growing season,” she said. “I love how easy green beans are to grow!” And then my sister-in-law even weighed in quite optimistically on some fall crop ideas. You simply couldn’t count all the exclamation marks.

Which is also to say that she is employing exclamation marks quite differently than I am when it comes to summer discussions. (“I can’t believe summer’s almost over! It’s like living in Copenhagen!!”)

It may be hard for me to face, but I’m beginning to conclude that we might have two frames of mind over our short summer season here in Vermont. There are those who bravely make the most of our truncated season. And then there are those of us who, in the quiet recesses of our minds, guiltily wonder if global warming might come with a side benefit of keeping the boats out an extra week or two. (Which is a thought of which I am repenting.)

Let me just say that this problem hasn’t necessarily kept me awake at night. Nevertheless, a rather troubling angle was recently added to the mix when my wife reminded me again of another detail: my sister-in-law is from Southern California! Now, I’m not one to go around trying to psychoanalyze extended family members. But that that someone of her background might find the Vermont summer length acceptable is a mystery I can’t easily walk away from.

One possible explanation I read about yesterday on my porch, in the waning August sunlight, comes from a psychologist named Dr. Loretta G. Breuning. In an article written for Psychology Today she suggests that the key to making peace with things outside of your control is all about retraining your mind. Building new “Neural Pathways” was her point.

“When the world disappoints your expectations, your brain releases cortisol and it feels like an emergency,” she explained. “You can re-wire your brain to feel safe when you’re not in control…it means building a new neural pathway to replace that old cortisol circuit.”

Now I don’t know a lot about cortisol, but to me this is essentially a new repackaging of an old adage I have subscribed to for many years: If you can’t change your situation, change your attitude.

Reading on I learned that the good doctor was basically suggesting a mental exercise to build new habits of mind. She recommends that for 45 days – say, the length of a solid Vermont summer – malcontented thinking might be reversed by forcing an opposite train of thought. Sure, comparing your short summer to others with even shorter summers might feel good in the moment. But the better option she says for your “Mammal Brain” is to rewrite your mental responses. If an unholy September frost were to materialize, for example, I should probably refrain from angry monologues at the local post office and instead remark on what a wonderful opportunity it will be for me to wear my new cardigan.

But perhaps a more plausible theory to explain people like my sister-in-law might have something to do with the intensity of how many Vermonters spend their summers. Like Navy sailors on limited shore leave, some Vermonters just understand how to make the most of the time. One neighbor of mine would fit this exactly. He routinely jogs by my home, shoulders back, training for a 50-mile mountain run!

In addition, his family performs weekly in Monday night park concerts; he’s teaching his kids how to sail this summer; their garden is the envy of the neighborhood; and his kids are some of the most enterprising fishermen in the area.

Clearly these people are not spending their summer sitting idle in lawn chairs.

I’ve been seriously pondering this (in my lawn chair) for some time now and I realize that the key to overcoming the short summer season is simply to cram four months of stuff into two months. It’s basically a way of cheating time. Run not one marathon but two. Back to back. Double the size of your garden. Catch enough fish to fill two freezers.

With any luck, utter exhaustion will effectively blanket any thoughts of how unreasonably short the summer season is. Which may be the underlying Vermont strategy all along.

I’ll be sure to check back with my sister-in-law on this.

And good luck with those tomatoes.