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Chris Erskine: It’s Time for Beer, Brats and Buttermilk

Back to his favorite pillow, his favorite dog, the boyhood bedroom where he would lie awake and worry/wonder about going away to college. Now, he’s nearly done with college. Nobody ever said life goes too slow.

At his age, I was a T-shirt full of angst and bravado, in equal parts, like peanut butter and jelly. My son Smartacus seems more serene. What right does he have? Takes a lot of gall to be serene in such a futzed-up world — some moxie, some nuggets. Perhaps this is what we need, though, a lighter sense of panic, a cowboy mentality, a sweet swagger.

In any case, my son is finally home. Let summer begin.

The solstice is this week, the sun at its most fiery point. I spend most days looking for a cool spot in the yard in which to lie down and die. Then I worry a little about whether the 401k will hold out. So, for me, summer is no different from fall.

At 67, I’m still a T-shirt full of angst and bravado. But I know a place where the ocean will lap your toes and the burgers whisper sweet nothings in your ear. I’ll be fine, thanks. Pass the salsa and the sunscreen. Are the Dodgers still in town?

Besides, in a few days, we leave this all behind for a trip to the Midwest. There are still drive-in movies back there. I’m hoping to find one showing “Soylent Green,” the brilliant futurist takedown of overconsumption. 

I remember seeing it in 1973 with a vat of popcorn and a 64-ounce Pepsi in my lap, thinking, “This’ll never happen.” In my defense, it was hard to imagine famine at a drive-in with a fully stocked snack bar. Or, in the Midwest, where feed corn is like OPEC oil.

At 17, I leaned over to my Becky Thatcher in the front seat and said, “Kiss me. Quick, before the world ends.”

There are worse reasons for a long, sweaty summer kiss.

My understanding of the Midwest is much like Martin Scorsese’s understanding of epic wealth: “luxurious and carnal … excremental, sanguinary, emetic, carnivalesque, and violent.”

I didn’t even know the word “sanguinary” until I read that little riff about Scorsese in The New Yorker. Leave it to a New York writer to take a perfectly good middle American word like “sanguine” — buoyant, hopeful — and mess it up a little.

The Midwest? Bullish, buoyant, built on brats and buttermilk. I’ve been prepping Smartacus for this wedding trip, how we have to put on our travel mask at LAX and pretend nothing can get to us — not that sea of brake lights as you first enter, not the Starbucks lines. The LAX mask is an emotional lampshade … a game face.

But he likes the Midwest, and thinks it worth the trouble. At 21, he’s even making noises about moving to Chicago when he graduates. He says there are lots of young people there. Evidently, what I see as a negative, he sees as a positive. I suppose that makes him sanguinary.

I’ve been prepping Suzanne for this wedding trip as well, which takes us, like Odawa war chiefs, to the upper Midwest, specifically the lake country of Michigan. 

<br><em>A sailboat rests on the sweet water of a Midwestern lake <em>

I used to hate everything Michigan stood for — union corruption, ore boats, the Lions — but I’ve mellowed a bit over the years. With the exception of California, Michigan might be our most glorious state. It’s now my favorite “outdoor room.”

Suzanne is super worried about the cicadas, an insect that is swarming much of the heartland right now. 

“Can they kill you?” she wonders. “Can they enter your nose and mouth in great numbers while you sleep?” 

I assure her that they are actually a misunderstood insect — kind of pretty, like dragonflies — and they won’t crawl into your mouth unless you treat the locals poorly or yap about the way people dress up there (so many Fritts Lager muscle shirts).

And in truth, the cicadas, while filling the doorways of Madison and Galena, haven’t found their way to the other side of the lake — to Michigan, where young Amy’s glorious summer wedding will soon be held.

“What a beautiful time to visit upper Michigan,” I assure my new Becky Thatcher.

See, there’s nothing more soothing than a summer by a lake, an old canoe ka-thunkin’ against the side of a dock, a cold brewski on your brow to ward off heatstroke and any emetic vibes.

A Bob Seger song in your heart. 

Need a solid summer read? Please consider “Perfect Eloquence,” the new tribute to Vin Scully, baseball’s Walt Whitman. Or, “What the Bears Know,” the life story of Steve Searles, the Thoreau of the mountains. Cheers and thanks. 

First published June 20-22 in Outlook Newspapers.

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