A few weeks ago I sat down to write an article about summer. Summer, I wrote, was three months of failed expectations; we spend so much time planning the books we’re going to read and the adventures we’re going to have, only to binge watch “Grey’s Anatomy” and sunburn our shoulders because we forgot to apply SPF 50. But the more I thought about it, the more the phrase “failed expectations” didn’t sound right and so I started again. Summer, I observed, was the essence of limitless possibilities; it was the opportunity to go on adventures, to fall in love, to “find yourself” in quests of self-discovery. But then I thought about how many of my friends have to use summer for practical things, like earning money to pay rent, or taking summer classes in order to graduate, and suddenly the word “limitless” started to bother me. So it was back to the drawing board. Summer was not a failure and it was not limitless, so what was it? Then it hit me: Pretend. Summer, I realized, is three months of playing pretend.
I am a master of playing pretend. Or, at least, I was when I was younger. At age 8 I was married to JC Chasez of N’Sync. That same year we had two kids (the whole “9 months” biological rule and the fact that JC was more than twice my age clearly did not matter in this instance). By 10 I was a master chef, and I had written a series of novels. During my sabbaticals as a chef/writer I would pick up my career as a teacher and teach anyone who would listen. At 11 I was an environmentalist, camping out in the tree on my front lawn when my dad threatened to saw off some of its decaying branches. For the first half of my existence I knew how to be everything even though I was none of these things in real life. I merely believed that I was something and, at the time, that was enough.
Eventually aspects of my childhood, like my imaginary friend, disappeared to make way for real friends, and I began to grow into my awkward pre-adolescent years. Yet, for whatever reason, I could not stop playing pretend. I pretended that I knew it all; I became what I refer to as a Benevolent Dictator of my friend group, always sitting at the head of our lunch table and staring out into my powerful domain. In high school I pretended that I was much cooler and much smarter than I was. Even though I now have less than a year before graduating college, I still sometimes pretend that I’m in a movie and the song playing on my iPod is the opening theme. Or I’ll narrate my life as it’s happening: She was honest and they called it charming. She took another bite of cheesecake, her thoughts alternating between how she could be so full of herself and cheesecake at the same time. And now I work in an art gallery. My boss, for her own mysterious reasons, frequently leaves me in charge, and suddenly I am 8 again. I am 8 and I’m standing in front of my Fisher-Price kitchen set and I’m a master chef. Except I’m not a master chef or a gallery owner or some fantastic heroine in a novel. If I’m being honest, I still don’t know what I am.
While playing pretend in your 20s may not always be socially acceptable, it is a truth universally acknowledged that during summer we are allowed to play pretend. In fact, we are essentially required to take a vacation from ourselves. For three months out of the year (if the standard school-appropriated definition of summer applies to you), playing pretend suddenly becomes socially acceptable again. You get an internship or a job that allows you to pretend to actually have that job with the hope that your pretending will morph into a future reality. You have summer flings and fall in love with that hipster guy you met at the grocery store. You might go on some grand tour of the world and pretend that, just for a moment, your normal life does not exist (nor do the responsibilities that accompany said life.) And why not pretend? It is exhausting to be oneself for nine months out of the year. Perhaps we need these three months of pretend just for the sake of our sanity.
Now, I have a very cynical perception of summer. I think it’s too hot and too slow; I think that fun places become annoyingly crowded with tourists who have their noses buried in their phones and don’t know which way is up. I think that “bikini season” is one of the worst phrases in English. I think that, as a twenty-something, there is too much pressure to spend summers “figuring out your life plan” and who you’re going to become (as if three months is enough time to figure that out). I think that, like birthday parties and New Year’s Eve, people have too many expectations for what summer should be like. The cynic in me often thinks that playing pretend should be left to the 10 year-old master chefs, novelists, and environmentalists; to the true masters of playing pretend.
But then again, we aren’t much different from our 10-year-old selves, are we? I pretend to know everything despite the fact that, in reality, I hardly know anything. I change my future career plans frequently. Some days I think I’m a novelist or a teacher or an environmentalist (the chef dream has long since died). Deep down, I still believe in the magic of summer. So maybe summer isn’t as awful as I imagine it to be and maybe playing pretend isn’t such a bad thing after all. Come to think of it, maybe the mere belief in the magic of playing pretend is the trick to figuring out what summer is all about. And maybe that is enough.
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