The other day I sent a friend an e-mail letting him know I couldn’t go to his birthday party because our grandson was turning one in Michigan. When I told my wife I’d spotted the conflict and dealt with it she pointed out that the birthday party is at the end of September and our grandson was born a year ago this past Sunday. Even if 75 is the new 30, August isn’t the new September.
But I think it might be. If I’m confused it’s because I read the newspapers, whose bells have tolled the passing season weeks before it passed. “It’s the end of summer,” John Kass wrote a week ago. “You don’t need the kids going back to school to tell you. I spotted it the other afternoon, earlier than usual, enjoying a good Nicaraguan cigar on the deck, a jalapeño margarita in my hand. So I finished my drink, stared down at my tomato patch full of regrets. That’s when I felt a hint of a chill on my arm.”
Four days before Kass, his colleague Mary Schmich observed in the pages of the Tribune that “even before you raise the shades in the morning, you can sense the shifting of the light. It’s light as omen. Light that shifts as insistently as the ticking of a clock. Light that equals time, time on the move.” The Tribune’s Heidi Stevens wrote a reminiscence of “misspent summers” and the headline called it “Final round of memories, as summer draws to a close.”
In a Tribune sister paper, the Naperville Sun, Rob Manker announced the other day that “fall is in the air.” Despite the date he knew it was fall because “the air conditioning in our house is off for the first time in months, the windows are finally open again and my annual late-summer/early fall head cold has arrived early this year.” Another Sun writer, Susan Frick Carlman, noticed school buses on the move and called them “an undeniable sign that, once again, summer is beating a hasty retreat.” When she wrote this, the actual start of autumn, September 23, was more than a month away.
My first assumption was that wistful passing-of-summer stories are, to be mildly ironic, evergreens, and I wondered if the papers bring them out earlier every year, the need to be first to be wistful being felt just as strongly by crack wordsmiths as the need to be first to be anything else. But when I consulted the Tribune archives for the past two summers, I discovered it isn’t so. Last September Schmich rejoiced in the brief but sublime season of “Septober,” but only one columnist looked the end of summer in the eye. Barbara Brotman wrote on September 1, “The lakefront is still vacation-worthy. The trees are still green and lush. The breezes are still warm. The sidewalk cafes are still serving. Looks like summer to me. So I’m calling it that.” It was September, and Brotman was defiant! This year it was August, and Kass and Schmich and the others were elegiac.
Was this a summer that never actually came, given the speed with which everyone’s kissing it good-bye? Or have we been warped by the human savagery and inanity that dominate the daily report? Whatever the reasons, this year we couldn’t wait to turn melancholy.