May 17, 2024


A personal essay, "Summer."

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Dear readers,

For the last year, I’ve been working on a collection of essays. Some I wrote 10 years ago, some I wrote a few weeks ago, and some I wrote in between and have been editing since. At some point next year, I am hoping to fulfill a dream of mine by publishing a collection of these essays in print. For the most part, they have nothing to do with politics; they’re just pieces of personal writing that take on various topics.

Now, if you’re anything like me, the last few months (few decades?) of political news have been a combination of frustrating, draining, scary, and overwhelming. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, it’s just been a lot — war, demonstrations, fights over abortion, criminal trials, immigration crises, the 2024 (and 2020 and 2016) election, etc.

As regular readers know, we like to include a good news story at the end of every newsletter as a bit of a palate cleanser. Every now and again that palate cleanser washes away the taste of a whole week, taking the form of an entire Friday piece totally separate from day-to-day politics coverage. In the past, I’ve written longform pieces in Tangle about my wife, my fish, and my trip to Bolivia

Today, we decided to publish a piece in that same spirit — something from that collection of essays I hope to publish — as a brief reprieve from the news. 

This is an essay called "Summer" that is, as the name implies, about the summer. I am sharing it publicly here for the first time. With Memorial Day quickly approaching, the timing felt right. And hey — if you really like the piece and happen to be a publisher (or know someone who is), don’t hesitate to reach out! 

I hope you all enjoy this little interlude, and we’ll be back on Monday with our typical coverage.




Blueberries. Wooden decks. Chlorine.

The season of “yes.” Yes, one more drink. Why not, it's summertime. This is what the summer is all about, we say. We stumble down the sidewalk, arm-in-arm, loud and laughing and pushing and shoving and wrapped up in each other’s joy. Yes, let’s go to the roof. Yes, let’s smoke that joint. Yes, let’s get up early to hit the beach. Yes, let’s swim. Yes, let’s nap. Yes, let’s have that ice cream sandwich and order that expensive dinner and go on that vacation and rent that boat and play that song and open that bottle and pick a wild berry from that wild bush and taste it just to see. Yes yes yes.

The ocean. Propeller planes. Signs that read “FRESH SEAFOOD” in big bold red letters.

The sound of summer is full of buzzes. A bee jumps from flower to flower, collecting and depositing the seeds of new life. buzz. A mosquito around your ear, then at your ankles before crossing back in front of your face. buzz. You’re on the back porch with a cold wet glass of water in the thick night, thinking quiet expansive thoughts. A swarm of cicadas buzzes in the distance, then suddenly, inexplicably, they all go silent. buzz buzz buzzsilence. You suddenly hear your own heart beating and sense the mystery of nature all around you.

A prop plane buzzes overhead. The neon sign outside the ice cream shop buzzes on. A small boat in the distance carrying screaming children on a water tube buzzes by, the sound of its engine lighting up the day.

But it’s not all buzzes. There is rustling and lapping and whooshing and crashing, too — and the never-ending palindrome of the tide. The tops of the full-green bushy trees rustle in the breeze, swaying into each other like drunken brothers or exhausted boxers or the waters of the open bay. The waves crash on the shore, their sound sinking into the sand, cresting and falling and cresting and falling and pulling you in. The lake laps into the dock, the pool burbles and plops and splashes, the river thrums the constant drum beat of stream and stone, of silty beds and broken branches, of beavers and bass. I used to think that the summer slowed things down, but I don’t think that’s true anymore. Summer expands and opens you, it makes it easier to see and feel and taste and sometimes you do so much taking in that the days fly by; but if you pay close attention, then yes — yes it can slow you down and help you savor this sweet, beautiful life just a touch longer. Time should be slow, and summer is your best chance at stretching it out.

The smell of freshly cut grass and raspberry pie and sunblock.

Sweaty foreheads and damp-dark clothing. We cram into a bush, four of us side by side, panting heavily and shushing all the same. The man opens his front door and steps outside, he looks left and right and for some reason up. Puzzled and annoyed, he goes back inside. We pause, for dramatic effect as much as certainty that the door is closed and locked, then we emerge like lions out of the tall grass. Eggs and toilet paper in hand, we unload the arsenal. In the trees. Over the house. At the windows. Around the car. Onto the bushes. Laughter and shrieking and whispering and fear. One of us runs back to the doorbell and this time smashes it affirmatively — leaving no doubt — one ring two rings three rings four rings five rings surely he is coming back to the door now but how brave are you really six rings seven eight and run! Run as fast as you possibly can and don’t look back don’t slow down just sprint sprint sprint sprint across the street over the fence through the backyard over another fence under the slide and across the cut through and down the driveway covered in egg toilet paper sweat dirt the leftover of prickly bushes and dive into the garage. We high-five and hug and laugh and curse and spit and knock our wiry shoulders into each other and puff our chests out and re-hash everything that just happened, moment by moment, as if none of us were there to see it, hearts beating out of our chests and eyes wide as the clear night sky. 

Fresh corn. Bright white clouds. Pickled vegetables in a jar. 

I’m on the shores of Cape Cod now. My feet are sunburnt, my shirt is stained with the grease of fried clam strips, my clothing is loose, and my face is warm. We walk gingerly through the tall grass that runs into the sand, careful not to step on the sharp stones or dried up crab shells, and make it out to the cool wet sand of the bay right at the water’s edge. I breathe deep and stare at the horizon. I think of the first European explorers, sails filled by the wind — the ones who came ashore in this very bay back when the world was growing. When the forests were full of natives and the oceans were full of seals and an abundance of oysters and clams and lobster all felt so ripe for the taking. I think of them and I breathe, enjoying the empty beach at sunset, wishing the abundance of the past into the present. Then I try to focus on all things that are still the same between then and now instead of all the things that have changed.  

Boomboxes. Souped-up cars. Diet coke. 

I’m at the corner of Greene Avenue in Brooklyn now and someone has opened the fire hydrant, so the kids are seeing who can stick their face in it the longest, going absolutely totally bonkers at the miracle of fresh cold fast city water on an unbearably hot humid bright day. A mom opens up a beach chair, lighting a cigarette and placing a kiddy pool right where the water is landing to fill it up for her children (but also to soak her feet). Grandma watches from the steps of the stoop, eyeing passers-by and keeping watch on her clan. Norteño blasts from the speakers. “Buenas, qué pasa mi niños?” I say in almost-good Spanish, and I dip my head into the water. A small boy holding a pool noodle in his hands looks up at me with probing uncertain eyes, so I smile back down and offer my fist. He bumps his to mine and throws himself back into the water, and we all carry on.

Yuccas. Dirt bikes. Straw hats.

I’m sitting on the floor of the Chihuahuan desert now, back resting against the giant tire of a Dodge Ram, shirt soaked with sweat, hands blistered and tired, the West Texas heat beating down on us. I drink some warm water, dump some on my head, then take another sip then dump a little more and get back to my feet. My jeans are crusted and stiff with sweat and sand and sun. My hat is soaked. My arms are heavy. My leather boots are hot and malleable, but doing exactly what they should. My heart is full and my body is primed. Even at 14 I understand that this is what humans are meant to be doing — not sitting inside hugging an air conditioner or slumped over a cell phone but out in the sun, feet on the ground, hands in the dirt, shovel to the sand, working and sweating and taking long, well-earned breaks where you touch the earth and look off at the horizon and think about how much left you have to do.

Thunderstorms. Ants. Peach trees. 

We’re at the country house now, somewhere tucked away on a windy road in New York’s Hudson Valley, and it begins to rain. It starts with a pang on the tin roof and turns to a quiet rush of water on the tree tops, rain that sounds like a running river. The number of birds chirping in the trees goes from many to a few — the woodpeckers are silent, but a few hardy crows may caw or tiny Eastern bluebirds call out as a silent bright red cardinal stares toward the sky.

As the rain starts, the butterflies that were fluttering through the yard in uncountable numbers just moments ago disappear and one of the small children in the home will ask “where do the butterflies go when it rains?” The room will fall silent for a moment and we’ll laugh, a little dumbstruck, looking to each other for some confident adult explanation. Someone will make up an answer that sounds almost right, like “they hide on the underside of branches,” and we’ll collectively marvel at the wonder and curiosity of a child.

While the pinging of the rain grows louder, instead of cheerful cooking and arguing and prepping for the slip ‘n slide we’ll start to settle in — Colette is building a cardboard train, Phoebe sits down with a puzzle, and I stretch out on the couch to read. Dinner turns to baking muffins, raucous games turn to slow and spooky TV shows. The click click click of the burner can be heard in the kitchen — Lydia preparing a hot pot of tea, slowly shuffling from sink, to stove, to sink.

The rain invites a stillness that opens space for us to talk, or just to be sad; for relaxation and naps, for the unseasonal pleasure of hot drinks and hoodies. Its presence permission to give up on the day, to let go of cramming every minute of every summer afternoon with something to do, and everyone lazily pounces at the opportunity. 

Rain in the summer is funny that way. When it's cold and rainy the rest of the year you might hide under an umbrella or a rain jacket or the warmth of a blanket. You may rush to get home or to your car or to the couch. But a summer rain? You tend to let that in — open the windows and the doors and relax into the sound, feel it. I love the summer rain because it can touch the innermost parts of you, the ones that slow down and observe. The other day a morning summer rain stopped me in my tracks and I found myself lying in bed, in my dark cool room in the early morning, still under the covers — just watching the rain bounce off the leaves of the giant Japanese maple tree that hangs over my Philadelphia row home. I pulled the curtains back for a full view and then climbed back into bed and kept watching, listening to the birds sing through it, wondering about the family of raccoons that invaded my roof, thinking about the slow approach of fall, and I felt time slow down. A few minutes were an hour, and I marveled at the spontaneous meditation of the rain — like nature’s version of listening to a clock’s second hand. At once both melancholy and jolly, soothing and discomforting, relaxing and attentive. It opens you. You want the smell of the summer rain, the feel of it, the sound of it, you want it to wash over you and it does and it permeates — it pushes through the way the rain in other times can’t.  

And what is summer without rain? What would the humid hot days be without an afternoon shower? What would the woods be without water? The running streams without a storm? For pines and oaks and maples to turn bright green and grow large and bushy and tall we need the rain. For the marigolds and daisies and ivy we must have water. The groundhogs have to go underground, sure, the squirrels will hide away in their nests, the deer will curl up in the meadow; but the landscape will soak in the rain, bask in it, and then unfurl its great big green canopy of woods. Without the rain the country would be dry and the wood reduced to barren sticks, but instead it smells of bark and wet stone and mounds of twigs. It sounds like feet on mossy ground and lapping creeks, like robins and goldfinches and yellowthroats and chirping sparrows. 

One of my favorite things about the rain in the country house is the way it will come and go. Sometimes the rain will be a brief drizzle, the birds chirping above it, the sound of the breeze still audible — a car’s wet tires slipping for purchase on the road as it drives by. And then it will slowly build. And build. And build. You will hear it crushing the treetops before you see it coming to the ground, an all-encompassing sound where the people around you nearly have to shout to be heard. A quiet rain suddenly sounding like class-four rapids in every direction. The woods will go silent and the porch will stand firm and the trees will somehow stand perfectly still and tall as they get battered by the steady rain — pshhhhhhhhhhh — sheets of it, falling and dropping and banging and panging and pouring and whooshing and then it will slow to a quiet again. The birds will chirp and a dog will bark in the distance and sounds from so very far away will, for a brief moment, come through clearly.

Sugar. Speed. Friendship. 

Summer! Summer as a child! Popsicles and soft serve and s’mores. Strawberries and pizza and lemonade. Late nights. Long days. No school. You bike to your friend's house without calling first because you know they’re home. Camp and sleepovers and outdoor everything. Boogie boards in the ocean, tubing on the lake, sprinting through the sprinkler. 

You get blasted by a fire hydrant. Small soft hands with barely grown fingernails wrapping themselves around a pumpkin-sized cotton candy. Grass stains and tree climbing and diving boards and walkie-talkies and lifeguards and minor league baseball and those french fries you can only get at a local community pool. Mini golf and batting cages and go karts. 

Itchy casts on broken arms and bandaids on scraped knees and scuffed helmets from the first wipe-out of the season. You learn to shoot a BB gun and to French kiss and to sip beer. 

Front flips and mud and smashing a bouncy ball as hard as you can into the ground and screaming with your best friends as it climbs 30 feet in the air and lands atop the neighbor’s car so you all scatter for a brief moment before running back to collect your things. You light fireworks in the open field and then you light fireworks inside something to see what happens and you break bottles in empty parking lots and trespass in junk yards to smash windshields just to watch how the glass breaks.

Tan shoulders. Long hair. Callused feet.

It’s late summer now, and like they always do at this time of year everyone is whispering about how the summer is almost through. How could it be? How is there only a week left in August when yesterday it was June? No more fun? No more late nights and ice cream and beach time? And it’s true that the summer is over which means it’s also true that we should soak up every last minute of every long warm day. So we eat dinner outside and we sit on the porch a little bit more and we stuff in one last beach trip and we try to let the summer in, let it into our bones, let the joy and warmth and freedom and fullness of this season settle and fuel us — keep us warm for the fall and winter and spring until it comes back around again. 

We drink it up and slow it down and look at the sun on the horizon. We smell the ocean spray and eke out one more fully barefoot day and wish, with all our heart, we’d treated the first weeks of summer with the same kind of urgency we will the last. Then we take comfort in the fact it will, inevitably and assuredly and as certainly as anything there is in life, come back again.  

Thanks for reading.

And I hope you enjoyed this brief interlude from the news.

Today's Friday edition to everyone. This piece was a little different, but if you want to get more Friday editions like it in the future, you can do that here.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.