The Dirty Truth of Summer: Why I Don't Want to Go Back to Washington

"I don't want to go back to Washington."

My 6-year-old son blurted this out as I was tucking him into bed the other night, but it could just as easily have been me talking.

The only part of summer I don't like is when it ends.

To me summer means visiting my sister Tessa in the small village on Cape Cod she made her home when she left college thirty years ago -- a summer destination spot for tourists, with a year-round population heavy on marine biologists, fishermen, artists and craftsmen.

I doubt Tessa felt like she was confidently pursuing an artistic life vision in those days. She started out with a job waiting tables in the tiny village center; the restaurant's owner had a pottery wheel, and Tessa took every chance she got to use it.

Her carved clay tiles now line the walls of the local library, her designs adorn the t-shirts of the town's film festival each summer, her mugs are the give-away lure to reel in donors to the local NPR station, and she headed the village May Fair for eight long years. She has never missed a son's hockey game, and as often as not she and her husband start the day with a morning cup at the local coffee shop -- which also sells her pottery. In short, when politicians talk about "community" -- this is it.

When my son was born nearly seven years ago the trek north became our annual summer vacation. This other world is a gift to a city boy -- especially one growing up in our city. It's a counter-balance to the surreality and skewed priorities on display in our hometown, the nation's capital. And its woods and marshes and stony beaches -- the way the sun and the tide charts drive the days -- ground us in something secure and significant, beyond politics or any human industry.

When we arrived for our weekly visit the summer Roo was two, I remember him eyeing the couch in my sister's living room with skepticism. It was the primary resting spot for two cats, a yellow lab, and two teenaged boys, above a pottery studio not far from the beach. "It's grubby," he said, and I cringed as my sister raised an eyebrow.

An hour later we were walking the lab down wooded paths soft with pine needles. When the dog chased a tennis ball into muddy thickets, Roo gleefully charged after her. That evening he made his own streaked contribution to the worn couch, and has never looked back.

The summer Roo was four we decided to check out a "fish tales and t-shirts" event hosted by the Marine Biological Laboratory headquartered in the village. I had some urban vision of fairy tales about mermaids and silk screening with sunfish carved into wooden blocks, and cheerfully picked out a white t-shirt for Roo to decorate.

We slipped into the room as a steel-eyed, sun-worn fisherman (I later learned he works as a doctor at the local ER) matter-of-factly explained fish physiology to a dozen kids and their adults. As he reached into a white bucket and pulled out a dead scup, the better to demonstrate fins and gills, I realized with slowly-dawning horror that there would be no wood blocks.

Roo was utterly unfazed and listened in rapt attention to the instructions: Use a wet paper towel to wipe any slime from your fish. With a small sponge, pat on paint from the available palettes. Put the painted fish on a fresh piece of newspaper and carefully lay your shirt on top, gently pressing the cotton onto the painted fish. Be sure to have a helper pulling up the dorsal fin (gingerly! Those spines can hurt) and straightening out the tail fin while you press, to get the full imprint. Oh, and daub a different color on the eyeball for a nice contrast.

Impressive stuff, but the kicker for my son was an off hand remark as we claimed our dead fish. "Have you ever noticed that fish can smell?" our guide queried, as he handed out limp fish. "They live under water, and their bodies are used to that pressure. When they are brought onto land and die in the air, their guts can seep out of their anus."

My son's eyes were as big and round as the dead scup's in front of us. This was possibly the most interesting and unexpected piece of information about the world he had ever been given.

He dove in with gusto ("Mommy, do you think that's enough paint on the eyeball?" as he jabbed a purple finger into the socket and I tried not to gag); I wore the latex gloves provided for out-of-town wimps.

This year, I had my two-year-old daughter wrapped around my leg for the big fish print night. As her bedtime receded into the hours-ago past and full meltdown was evident on the fast-approaching horizon, dead fish were child's play, and I was all business, scooping up fish and slapping them down bare-handed. "Hey Roo, look at that! Must be some of the guts seeping out," I chatted, as I flicked off the brown goo with a sense of purpose and the value of time.

How on earth can Washington compete? Our capital's drama these days is manufactured and the information doled out is both suspect and of dubious import. I don't want to go back to Washington because of the inescapable feeling there that everyone is too busy posturing to consider getting their hands dirty accomplishing anything. Bring on the pottery clay and the fish guts!

"Why don't you want to go back to Washington?" I asked my son.

"Because I have to wear shoes everywhere and I can't just lay in bed in the mornings."

Also good reasons.