The pleasures and perils of reading outside

Reading outdoors is an ambiguous business. I’m an outdoor-reading veteran, a pastime that unites something I adore — reading — with something I barely tolerate — the outdoors. 

Yet occasionally a switch of scenery is required and I’ll dust off a patio chair at a spiffy sidewalk cafe and do the old curl-up with a crisp new paperback. Way back when, I’d try to read old-school newspapers while lounging on the beach, furiously fighting the wispy pages to stay put in the seaside gales. Without fail, a page corner would poke me in the eye and a full page would slap my cheeks. Repeatedly.

That’s how reading outdoors can be ambiguous. I was reminded of this today, a partly cloudy, 64-degree afternoon, when I fancied a book and a breeze would be a peachy idea. I grabbed my reading and hit the backyard deck thinking what a clever boy I am. 

After recently tearing through two new novels — “Whereabouts” by Jhumpa Lahiri and “Second Place” by Rachel Cusk, both ethereal, psychologically astute gems — I’m onto the Ralph Ellison classic “Invisible Man,” which even in its early pages is searing. Propulsive, savage, uncompromising — perfect for a glimmering spring day.

I lasted about 25 minutes out there. The clouds kept stubbornly shifting, sealing off the sky for jacket-ready cool, then opening to a sunscreen-ready radiance. Hopscotching moods, it was atmospheric ADD. 

I sniffled as puffs of wind released flurries of pollen over me, and my bookmark fluttered into the fresh, fragrant mulch. The chilly breezes, swaying shrubs and twisting trees, sent me back inside with grumbling memories of beach vs. newspaper. 

Mother Nature was playing with me, smudging the border between winter and spring, which had its calendrical kick-off March 20. (Summer — insufferable with its perplexing pleasures — arrives June 21, an annual day of mourning.) How else do you explain today’s crazy, veering temperatures? Nature knows how to confound. Watch how she drives meteorologists bat shit.

And she knows how to boomerang me back inside, onto the cushy Eames chair, body gently reclined, feet up, “Invisible Man” in hand, and not a mote of dusty golden pollen to spur the sneeze and wheeze.

This tiff with the elements isn’t over, and its history is rich. Just last week I was reading the Rachel Cusk novel on the deck in fine balmy air, the only irritant a black hairy bumblebee the size of a condor that decided it wanted my friendship. It buzzed and bothered; I swung and swatted. The encounter was a truce.  

I coulda been killed out there. What next while I’m reading amidst flora and fauna, burly bumblebees and erratic skies? Rabid chipmunks? A biblical hail storm? The next-door neighbor trying small talk over the fence? (I’ll take rabid woodland animals over that.)

Summer’s thermal terrors are fast coming and I will spend most of the hot months indoors, hands on the latest talked-up book or dog-eared classic. Inside it’s dark and dank, the only breeze wafting from A/C vents, the only deluge the torrent of words I’m reading, the only vicious creature a scruffy terrier mix named Cubby, who can be effectively disarmed with a hearty belly rub or a good Jack Reacher thriller. Much like me.

Spring’s atonal symphony

To sit outside on a warm spring day, breeze swirling, sun sparkling, is a thing of momentous good fortune to be savored and cherished. Ah, springtime. It is beautiful, what with nature’s flowery plentitude, cloudless azure heavens and a frenzy of insects. (Ah, bugs.)

A medium-size translucent spider — a nasty arachnid, not an insect, let’s be clear — descended on me from the heights of the patio umbrella. I broke its silk safety line and, holding it by the shiny thread, released it on the deck to do its venomous butchery. 

Next, a frisky mosquito could not be shaken from my index finger, its blood-sucking proboscis neatly jabbed into my flesh. I removed it with a violent flick. It tumbled through the air, probably trailing my bodily fluids.

Then, despite the umbrella’s yawning roof, pollen-like detritus from a tree landed on my lap and in my hair. Not enough specialness? I soon started breaking a minor sweat and I felt kind of itchy.

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That is the ballad of spring for me, a symphony of notes glorious and galling, a sun-soaked wonderworld of short sleeves and short pants, tiny athletic socks and expensive sunglasses to avert instant blindness. Sunscreen is for chumps, but the coconutty perfume forever wafts in the light, distinctly welcome breeze. 

Ah, springtime. If you can’t tell yet I am one of three souls in the universe who is totally divorced from the purported pleasures of the season. (I have tallied my woes here previously. Patience, reader.) 

I’m like an albino who can’t be out in the naked sun, with pink eyes that scorch in the light. I’m like The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. I’m like Nosferatu: a sliver of sunlight will reduce me to a writhing pile of ash. 

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The sun kisses Nosferatu. He is not pleased.

I don’t do heat. Sweating is an international incident. Shorts render me a fashion calamity not even the “Queer Eye” guys can fix. (I used to be a strict “Never Shorts” guy. Read about us here.) Bugs are a basic annoyance, but pollen triggers sneezes 8.0 on the Richter scale. 

I appreciate the silken loveliness of verdant trees, crazy-quilt flowers, blue skies and those velvet breezes. But then one must contend with lawnmowers, street fairs, movies in the park, barbecues, pedal boats, lakes, life jackets. Enough.

And that’s just spring. Summer multiplies it ten-fold. It’s no longer a respectable symphony, it’s a full-bore, drug-fueled rave, with shirtless throngs tossing hair and sweat across a mass of herky-jerky bodies, electronic dance music throbbing, the western world teetering on collapse.

Not a thing to be done about it. I will, as usual, suck it up and scrape by. I’m a trooper like that — whiny, but a trooper. Twice already I’ve worn shorts with little tiny socks and I pulled through. The mythic ice cream-truck tools and tootles through the streets, children titter and play outside till 8 p.m., the public pool just opened its gates and I smell the carcinogenic bouquet of burning charcoal in the air.

It’s happening. Now. If you can prod me outdoors, I’m the guy huddled in the shade, shielded from the sun, far from the water, book in one hand, beer in the other, grinning and bearing it, with only the vaguest curl of a scowl on my lips. The symphony roars on.