When it gets very hot on Shelter Island, chickens lay fewer eggs, turkeys call a temporary truce in the battle for reproductive rights and the horses on Midway Road stand so still that if not for an occasional flick of the withers or tail, I could mistake them for Breyer models.
The dog days are the hottest six weeks of summer, when Sirius, the Dog Star, rises. Dog days call for indolence, and most animals comply.
Humans don’t. During the dog days, everybody on Shelter island is either trying to provide a good time or have one, and a lot of money changes hands in the process. Even when doing things is unwise — and potentially life-threatening — I see plenty of people out there, puffing and red-faced, riding a rented bike up the hill from Crescent Beach, attacking the edges of just-mowed lawn with a weed wacker or working in a half-finished home installing drywall. When a limited-time opportunity to make a living or have some fun coincides with the hottest time of the year, you do what you have to.
Hot weather is a problem for the far-flung members of my tribe, for we are potchke people, meaning we spend large parts of every day engaged in senseless — and often incompetent — activity because we cannot help ourselves. No oppressive high-pressure system can distract us from the fact that time’s a-wasting and that spice rack isn’t going to alphabetize itself.
Potchke is a Yiddish word meaning the opposite of indolence. For example, in the grip of a recent urge to potchke, I rustled up the garden loppers and went out to prune my fig tree in the cool of the evening, undeterred by the fact that I couldn’t really see what I was cutting, resulting in the loss of several ripening figs.
My sister Ellen’s late husband, Joel, was known for making enormous vats of gumbo and chili that involved chopping a minimum of 20 heads (not cloves) of garlic, turning their large kitchen into a war zone, complete with poison gas from the vaporous chilies he used by the handful. On more than one occasion, Ellen and her daughters had to stuff towels under their bedroom doors against the spreading cloud of capsicum generated by Joel’s righteous brews. Was it necessary, or even wise, to manufacture such stupendous dishes? One who potchkes does not care, for “joy’s soul lies in the doing.”
I spent the first week of summer in Paris with my mother, sisters and an assortment of our children where we gathered for an annual food festival in which only our family participates. We situate ourselves in somebody else’s apartment and cook and eat anything we can find in a three-arrondissement area. The potchke is intense.
It was very hot, so we had the windows wide open, affording a view of the neighbor’s cat spread out like a tiger rug in the courtyard. Two years ago, during our Paris idyll, I accidentally threw a large tablecloth out the window when I decided it made sense to shake the crumbs out the window. I lost my grip and it landed on the roof of a neighbor’s shed. A series of notes had to be left for the neighbor, explaining in faltering French how the tablecloth got on their shed and asking for help retrieving it. This year, I was prevented from shaking the tablecloth out the window, since this time it could smother a cat.
By the time I got back from Paris, it was very hot here, too. I noticed that although my dog doesn’t move much in this weather her fur certainly does. It’s true that the hotter it gets the more a dog will shed, a process known as “blowing coat.” Even if I doubted the science, a few minutes relaxing next to Mabel confirms that something is definitely blowing, since her fur clings to my moist skin in clumps. In fact, sweeping up dog hair and going over upholstered surfaces with a lint roller is practically a separate category of potchke; unending and useless.
When Shakespeare wrote that “summer’s lease hath all too short a date,” he may not have been thinking of an August 1 to Labor Day waterfront rental, but both are reminders that summertime, like all time, is limited, and we should make the most of it. I’ll use that as justification for hot weather potchke.
But really, it’s in my nature.
The author is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Shelter Island Reporter.