Becalmed in the Summer Doldrums

In the early eighties, after lunch, around 1 PM on hot — and I mean Indian hot — summer days, I’d step out onto the verandah, push two straight-backed chairs together to create a sort of bench, and take a nap. There were ceiling fans inside, and even one room with an air-conditioner, but I preferred the verandah with its still, hot air. It was a natural sauna and sensory deprivation chamber. It induced a sort of death-sleep and occasionally, mild hallucinations.  Reflecting on these memories and the 100 degree days we’ve been experiencing here in the DC area this week, it struck me that I am a very seasonal kind of guy. Which is why I dread being forced to move to California. Something about sharply marked seasons fits very well with my personality. At least when I am able to harmonize my own manic-depressive mood swings with the local seasons. In my winter post from exactly 6 months ago, I noted that I like bouts of extreme, deathly cold because they represent rebirth and renewal. Deathly summer heat on the other hand, feels like suddenly hitting the pause button in the middle of the most exciting action in a movie.

Indian summers are hotter, but North American summers are actually harder to deal with, for two reasons.

First, the northern latitudes create ridiculously long days. Your usable outdoor hours get pushed to before 8 AM and after 8 PM, and the American social clock, lacking a siesta, is simply not stretchy enough to accommodate them well.

Second, the summer ends in the horrible, listless August lull (a month so awful, David Plotz of Slate proposed getting rid of it), while in India, the summer ends with the Monsoon punching you in the face. There is really no contest. Though you can get sick of the relentless rain very quickly, the Monsoon makes you glad to be alive. It even makes you feel virtuous and gritty, since even getting to school or work can feel like an accomplishment. The American August, on the other hand, is a kill-me-now kind of misery. Much of the misery is due to the effects of the American calendar. You have to endure the lack of momentum and the dread of the unfinished work of the year. The post Labor Day charge looms menacingly, making it impossible to enjoy the enforced lull. In Europe, they at least have the sense to just take the whole month off en masse, so you know for sure nobody else is working either. Here, enough of us are forced to push on that we can ruin things for those who dare to go on vacation.

Both the American clock and the American calendar need some reform, but that’s neither here nor there.

The hottest week or two in July represent the onset of the psychological doldrums. The motivational winds of spring die away with extreme suddenness. You are becalmed.

Being becalmed psychologically isn’t necessarily a symptom of inadequate internal drive. It is an environmental and social psychological effect.  Even though we call it drive, human motivation is more about a sense of direction than inner propulsion. It is about handling rudder and sail. Human beings have no engines. Your progress is powered by the wind. And the winds of motivation arise from the behaviors of those around you and your reactions to the seasons.

Extreme, windless heat induces both internal and external stillness in those who are sensitive to the seasons.  In winter,  external stillness hides furious internal renewal and rebooting. Us seasonal types are busy introspecting, making resolutions and contemplating our entire lives. The stillness of summer is inside-out stillness.  You know where you are going, you know what you need to do next, and there is no real value in thinking too far ahead. When that week in July hits, you are in the middle of stuff, not at the beginning or end.

And then the universe hits the pause button in your head. It is the lunch-time of the year. We should stop calling it summer, and borrow that wonderful word Italians use for the mid-day break, pausa.

Deadlines may loom and anxiety may mount, but you cannot move. You cannot get restless about time being wasted, because you are on a temporal siding. The main tracks are being used by Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa and Chile. You cannot waste time, because the time isn’t yours to waste. The July temporal siding is a sharp reminder that time isn’t personal property. Nature budgets the use of the temporal commons. The time-winds of motivation are blowing elsewhere on the planet.

About the only thing you can do with July is make sure your back-burners are adequately stocked with important stuff that needs simmering. The front burners are going to be turned off, whether your like it or not.

I have now officially gone beyond merely mixing metaphors to pureeing them. For those who haven’t been counting, the puree contains sailing ships, stretchy clocks, railway tracks, both metaphorical and literal sorts of wind, an electronic pause button, computer rebooting, boxing (“punch in the face”), property rights, cooking (burners and simmering), the day as a metaphor for the year, space (doldrum latitudes) as a metaphor for time (summer) and momentum in the sense of physics.  The puree deserves its own metaphor. Let me call it garam masala. Hot spice-blend. Fresh garam masala is usually made as a wet puree rather than the dry powder you get in stores. It normally contains 20-30 individual spices. Bad garam masla tastes like crap.

While on spices and summer, there are interesting thoughts there. Everybody likes lemonade in summer, but the variants are interesting. Americans just add sugar. Sweet and sour. Indians add salt as well. If we have it handy, we prefer black rock salt, a wonderfully pungent substance that almost no other nation on the planet can handle.  Indian summer cooling foods always have spicy/salty overtones; we can’t stand pure sweetness. I like to put black salt on pineapple slices. I like to eat my water melon with some fresh lime and finely chopped green chili peppers. Punjabis like sweet lassi, but I can only handle the salty kind, known as chaas. But Punjabis are crazy anyway, and don’t count. Food temperature is another area of difference. I prefer hot tea or coffee  to soda, iced tea or coffee. Americans don’t seem to get that hot liquids on hot days can actually work. But you need to accept, rather than fight, the psychological doldrums for that hot-and-hot combo to work. You don’t fight summer with ice. You make friends with it, with heat.

Curiously, I don’t like ice cream very much in the summer. It is way too heavy. Ice cream is for late spring and early fall.

You know the doldrums are over when you suddenly start craving different foods. There is a restless stir in the air and a growing hunger for movement, and your stomach senses it first. Perhaps because the new temporal regime demands a different kind of bodily fuel. My tastes are still stuck in Indian Monsoon grooves. I know summer is drawing to a close when I start craving pakoras and chai, classic Monsoon food. There is nothing better than sitting on your verandah with a cup of chai and some crispy pakoras, watching the rain pound the earth mercilessly, the near-opaque sheets of water walling you in. Unfortunately the pakora-chai combination is awful for the American August. Another reason to ban the bloody month.

Still, at least I am not in California.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Interesting that you say this. Mungaru is punding us here, incessant rains! Samosa/pakoras with chai/filter coffee is very fulfilling – nothing dreary about these couple months before gusty winds start lashing at us and some bouts of fanciful rain coming along! Especially in Bangalore, rain is a regular visitor. It rains almost 7 months of the year – and I must say that it is wonderful to be in Bangalore :)

  2. Too bad for you you have it backward with August, because it stops other people mucking around and brings some serenity in otherwise too frantic places, but may be this doesn’t happen in Amerikka, dunno.
    As a non sweet summer drink I would suggest water Kefir..

  3. Your description of an Indian Summer, complete with August Monsoons, sounds a lot like the summers I experience living in Phoenix. If you truely miss godawfully hot summer days and wet Augusts then there is a place for you in North America. You should consider spending your summers in Scottsdale. The resorts are very cheap this time of year.

  4. The world is a cyclical place. We humans try to detach ourselves from it, but I think it is a mistake. I think the western work world needs to reacquaint itself with these cycles.