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Letter From Key West: Appreciating The Off-Season

June 20th was the official first day of summer, but  it’s felt like summer for weeks already.  Many of us dread the humid days when we can barely walk to our cars without breaking a sweat.  Writer Nancy Klingener has learned to appreciate summer and the off-season in Key West. Her full essay is below.

Nancy Klingener describes herself as “a recovering journalist, aspiring librarian and addicted reader” living in Key West, Florida. She’s also the writer behind the The Bone Island Book Blog.

The music in this piece was “Cutty and Water Blues” by Miami band, Electric Piquete.

Letter from Key West: Summer

by Nancy Klingener

After 10 years in South Florida I accepted summer. The gasping for breath as you get into a hot car, dripping with sweat after a minor task like washing dishes – getting drenched by a sudden rain. it just seemed smart to stop fighting it and accept that a subtropical summer is bigger than I am. I stopped expecting the nights to cool off, stopped looking for breaks in the humidity, and adjusted my personal calendar to expect autumn sometime around Christmas.

And after 20 years in South Florida I realized I prefer summer. It’s a mid-life shift for me, a born-and-bred New Englander of Scandinavian descent. As a kid, I lived for crisp fall days and heavy snowfalls that meant no school. We had cross country skis and miles of country to use them right outside the back door. From apple cider in the fall to maple syrup in the spring, cold weather meant fun and treats.

Still over the last few years, I’ve been surprised to find myself in late spring, not feeling the usual dread as the days grew longer and the humidity rises–instead I feel anticipation, excitement. I used to envy snowbirds, picturing them in cool mountain cabins or shady lakefront cottages, while we sweated out summers down here in Key West.

For years, my goal in life was to become one of those snowbirds, but I never did figure out the job that provides health insurance and lets you leave for four months a year. Now I have a different view of our migratory friends. I appreciate  the energy and economic largesse they bring to town, but I secretly regard them with an attitude that is somewhere between pity and smug superiority. They may get to escape to drier, cooler places, but they miss out on what’s so great about summer in Key West.

In summer, there’s more light and more time. You can decide at 4 o’clock to go on a sunset sail. In summer, the water is warm and the winds die down, so it’s perfect for lazy snorkeling. One day I found myself in the back country, a few yards off shore. Suspended in the clear water over the sea grass, tiny fish and other sea creatures emerged, revealing themselves only because the water and I were calm and still. It felt more magical than an ambitious dive on a cold water reef, like I had been allowed to glimpse a secret world that most people would never notice. That could only happen in the summer.

In summer, you can go to the beach after work, have a swim and picnic supper before sunset, and see only your fellow islanders. You can go to the movies and not be crammed in next to an incessant talker or texter. You can get a seat at your favorite restaurant or bar,  without having to wait. Even if the place has been discovered by the wider world. And parties are more fun. More likely to be impromptu and more mellow. Out of season, there’s no such thing as an A-list. At the library where I work, we somehow manage to keep going without advice about how things are done back in Chicago or Conneticut.

Summer is when Key West feels most real-Less like an adult-oriented theme park or a resort aspiring to become the Hamptons of the South. And more like an island that’s comfortable with its own identity-which includes long steaming summers. When the poinsietta’s are blooming and the mangoes are falling, it’s a reminder to slow down some, look around, appreciate all the beauty and weirdness that can escape me all season when I’m just too busy to notice. More thoughtful people call this ‘living in the moment.’ I call it summer in Key West.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.
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